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Photo of Linda Bartoshuk LINDA BARTOSHUK

Linda Bartoshuk received her Ph.D. in 1965 from Brown University. She spent a few years at the Natick Army Research labs (they do research related to food for military personnel) and then went to the Pierce Foundation and Yale University in New Haven, CT. She is currently a Professor in the Ear, Nose, and Throat section of the Surgery Department at the Yale University School of Medicine. Although one might expect to find only MDs in a clinical department in a medical school, a position there allows a basic researcher like Linda to do research with patients. Her main research interests concern the sense of taste. She is interested in genetic variation as well as pathologies of taste.

Linda can test people's genetic ability to taste by asking them to taste a small piece of paper that contains a substance called PROP. To nontasters the paper is tasteless, to medium tasters, the paper is moderately bitter, and to supertasters, the paper is intensely bitter. When she swabs blue food coloring onto the tongues of her subjects, she can see differences. Fungiform papillae (structures that contain taste buds) do not stain well so they are visible as small pink circles against a blue background. Nontasters have the fewest fungiform papillae and supertasters have the most. Not surprisingly, supertasters experience the most intense tastes. Since taste buds are surrounded by pain neurons, supertasters also experience the most intense oral burn from chili peppers. Chili peppers burn when they first touch pain receptors in the mouth. However, over time, they turn off the pain receptors. Thus, chili peppers can actually be used to treat sores in the mouth.

Taste and pain are also connected in the brain; taste inhibits oral pain. For animals in the wild with mouth pain, eating would decrease pain insuring that the animal would not starve. Unfortunately, this good mechanism can have bad effects in some people. When the taste nerves are damaged, oral pain is no longer inhibited. In supertasters, this can result in a severe pain disorder called burning mouth syndrome. This can be treated with a very low dose of a medication that can restore the lost inhibition.

Linda has served as president of the Association for Chemoreception Sciences (AChemS), the Eastern Psychological Association and the Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology Division of the American Psychological Association. She was elected to membership in Society of Experimental Psychology and The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1998, she received the AChemS Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Chemical Senses.

See Linda Bartoshuk's answers to Ask the Scientists questions.

Linda is also featured in Cool Careers in Science.





 

Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.