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World first images of taste at work on the tongue

A tongue, illuminated by two-photon excitation. Taste buds are blue, among the yellow papillae. ANU

Scientists have for the first time captured live images of the process of taste sensation on the tongue.

The international team imaged single cells on the tongue of a mouse with a specially designed microscope system.

“We’ve watched live taste cells capture and process molecules with different tastes,” says biomedical engineer Steve Lee from Australian National University (ANU).

There are more than 2,000 taste buds on the human tongue which can distinguish at least five tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami.

However, the relationship between the many taste cells within a taste bud and our perception of taste has long been a mystery.

The new imaging tool shows that each taste bud contains cells for different tastes.

The team imaged the tongue by shining a bright infrared laser on to the mouse’s tongue which caused different parts of the tongue and the flavour molecules to fluoresce.

The team now hopes to monitor the brain while imaging the tongue to track the full process of taste sensation.

“Until we can simultaneously capture both the neurological and physiological events, we can’t fully unravel the logic behind taste,” says Dr Lee.

The research is published in the journal Nature Publishing Group’s Scientific Reports.

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