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Chemical Senses

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Chemical Senses

When COVID-19 first started, it seemed like we heard about new symptoms of the virus every day. In certain cases, contracting the virus practically stopped your ability to smell and taste for long periods of time!

Why is the sense of smell and the sense of taste important?

  • What are our chemical sense?
  • How do our chemical senses work?
  • What are the different taste sensations?

Definition of the Chemical Senses

Our ability to smell and taste is important. Without it, humans would have had a difficult time making it this far. From an evolutionary perspective, these two senses helped us stay safe in dangerous environments. They helped us detect spoiled food and the toxic substances produced by plants when they start to rot.

We also use our sense of smell to detect smoke, indicating that fire is nearby. Can you remember a time when your sense of smell kept you safe from your environment? Though smell and taste obviously still play a big role in helping us interact safely with our environment, they also play a role in enjoying our lives. Certain smells can trigger strong memories, and certain foods can remind us of home. So what makes smell and taste so special, and how do these senses work?

Our chemical senses are the sense of smell and the sense of taste. These are called chemical senses because they rely on detecting chemical compounds. The sense of touch receives information through pressure receptors, sight receives information through photoreceptors, and sound receives information through specialized hair cell receptors; taste and smell, on the other hand, receive information through chemical receptors, or chemoreceptors. Chemical senses use specialized receptors that transmit impulses to the brain.

Chemoreceptors, or chemical receptors, sense chemicals found in the environment and transmit information about those chemicals to the brain.

Examples of the Chemical Senses

You may think taste only comes from your taste buds, but biting into an apple and knowing that you're eating an apple requires both chemical senses, i.e., smell and taste. Our gustatory receptors (taste buds) will be able to determine if what we just ate was sweet, and our olfactory receptors (smell) will be able to determine if what we're eating smells like an apple. Our brain then uses the smell and taste chemical information provided to it to tell you that you're eating an apple!

What would happen if you bit into the apple and it had no taste? You would look at it, smell it, and try to figure out what is wrong with it.

Olfactory is another word for smell. Our olfactory system is the system that allows us to be able to smell things.

Gustatory is another word for taste. Our gustatory system is the system that allows us to be able to taste things.

Taste

Our ability to taste starts with the tongue and the tastebuds found on it. These tastebuds are located throughout the tongue and are found in structures called papillae. Though it may not seem intuitive, different nerves pick up taste on different areas of the tongue! The nerves involved in taste include cranial nerves 7 (the facial nerve), 9 (the glossopharyngeal nerve), and 10 (the vagus nerve)!

Smell

Our ability to smell starts with the nose and the olfactory nerves that sit within it. These nerves contain smell receptors that transmit chemical information to our brain. The cranial nerve involved in smell is cranial nerve 1, the olfactory nerve.

If you plug your nose while eating, your sense of taste is unable to work properly. This is because while your tongue is able to differentiate between certain tastes such as sweet, sour, bitter, and so on, your sense of smell adds to the flavor.

While eating a lemon, your tongue will taste sour and maybe sweetness, while your nose picks up on all the subtle citrus scents, allowing your brain to understand and experience eating a lemon. If you plugged your nose you would have a difficult time differentiating a lemon from critic acid!

Another example of chemical senses is our ability to detect gas. A special odor is added to household gas for the sole purpose of making it detectable by scent. In the case of a gas leak, it is important to quickly identify the spill in order to prevent fires or explosions. Our sense of smell is so powerful that we can pick up on even small amounts of gas.

Chemical Senses, Firemen fight a fire, StudySmarterSmell helps to detect fire, pixabay.com

The Chemical Senses and Body Senses

We are able to smell because of the olfactory system, including cranial nerve 1, and the olfactory section of our brains. The olfactory nerve (cranial nerve 1) has fibers called olfactory fibers that reach all the way into the nasal cavity. These fibers sit on the surface of the inside of our nose and pick up on aromatic chemicals (chemicals that we can smell) and transmit them through nerves to our brain. This system is so specialized that there are roughly 450 scent receptors! An average healthy human can tell the difference between around 1 trillion different odors.

Humans have 12 cranial nerves altogether.

But what about taste? The ability to taste comes from another super-specialized neurologic system called the gustatory system. The ability to taste is split up on the tongue and the pharynx. The chemoreceptors that detect different tastes are located in the taste buds, which are found in papillae.

The gustatory system is the system involved in taste. It is created from multiple cranial nerves as well as certain areas of the brain which are important in processing this information. The pharynx is the anatomical name for our throat. Papillae are bumps found on our tongue which contain many tastebuds.

Chemical Senses, A chef sniffing some herbs, StudySmarterTaste and smell are important to cooking, pixabay.com

There are five categories of tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and savory. Savory is also known as umami. The ability to taste is affected by our ability to smell. While both a strawberry and an apple are sweet, the ability to tell which is which comes from the olfactory system. This is because while both strawberries and apples have sugar, they have different scent chemicals!

Sweetness

Sweetness is usually one of the tastes people find pleasurable. Sugar is important for energy, and we find eating sweet things to be enjoyable.

Sourness

The sour flavor is the flavor of acidity. These compounds are common in citrus fruits.

Children tend to like sour foods more than adults.

Bitterness

Bitterness is one of the most sensitive tastes. Many of the toxic compounds are bitter. One of the most loved beverages around the world is high in bitter compounds, i.e., coffee.

Salty

Salt is found in abundance in modern society, but it can lead to hypertension and kidney disease. Ancient humans didn’t have this luxury, and the ability to taste salt helped them make sure they ate enough of this essential mineral.

Savory

Taste buds that detect savory flavor usually bind to glutamate. One common compound used in cooking is Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), which produces a savory flavor.

There may be another chemical sense that isn't currently recognized. The function of the nervus terminalis, or Cranial nerve 0, is mostly unknown. It runs alongside the olfactory nerve, and researchers believe it was used to detect the pheromones of potential mates in earlier human species. Cranial nerve 0 may use chemoreceptors to impact sexual behaviors by triggering the release of hormones.

The Psychology of the Chemical Senses

The connection between smell and memory is immensely strong due to the location of scent processing in the limbic system of the brain. It is also due to the fact that smell is the only sense not processed through the thalamus. Certain smells can bring back past memories more effectively than any other sense. You have held a pencil many times, but the feel of the pencil may not bring back strong memories for you. I bet if you smelt pencil shavings, though, you might have a strong memory of being in class as a young kid! Research has shown that smell may have a part in attraction and mating as well.

The loss of the chemical senses can be devastating. Some people may even report feeling anxious or depressed after a period of not being able to smell. In some instances, losing the sense of smell can be a sign of a more serious condition such as Parkinson's disease, or Alzheimer's.

Chemical Senses - Key takeaways

  • Out of the five senses, two are called chemical senses -- taste and smell
  • Chemical senses work by picking up chemicals in the environment and transmitting chemical signals to the brain
  • Our ability to smell comes from olfactory receptors found at the end of cranial nerve 1
  • There are 5 separate taste sensations: sweet, salty, savory, bitter, and sour
    • Taste buds are found on the tongue in structures called papillae
  • The sense of smell plays a role in memory retrieval and emotion
    • Certain conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's are associated with a loss of smell

Frequently Asked Questions about Chemical Senses

Chemical senses are senses that detect chemicals in our environment. Smell is a chemical sense as it can detect chemicals and relay this information to be processed by the brain. Taste is another example of a chemical sense.  

The two chemical senses are smell and taste. 

The chemical senses have specialized receptors called chemoreceptors. The other senses do not.   

The two senses that can detect chemicals are smell and taste.  

No, vision is not one of the chemical senses, as photoreceptors are not chemoreceptors.  

Final Chemical Senses Quiz

Question

How many senses are there?

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Answer

Five

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Question

What are the 5 senses?

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Answer

Touching

Seeing

Tasting

Hearing

Smelling

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Question

What are the non-chemical senses?

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Answer

Seeing

Hearing

Feeling

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Question

What are the 2 chemical senses?

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Answer

Smelling and tasting. 

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Question

How many different tastes are there?

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Answer

Five

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Question

What are the different tastes?

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Answer

Sweet

Salty

Bitter

Sour

Savory

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Question

What cranial nerve is responsible for scent?

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Answer

Cranial nerve 1

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Question

What cranial nerve(s) are responsible for taste?

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Answer

Facial Nerve (7), Glossopharyngeal nerve (9), vagus nerve (10)

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Question

Why are scent and taste important?

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Answer

These two senses help protect us from environmental danger.

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Question

Which taste is mediated by glutamate?

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Answer

Savory or umami

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Question

Which taste is mediated by the detection of NaCl?

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Answer

Salty

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Question

Why is taste important?

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Answer

Taste helps us determine if food is spoiled. Also, many toxic substances found in nature are bitter. 

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Question

What kind of receptors are olfactory receptors? 

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Answer

G-Protein Coupled Receptors 

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Question

Is smell processed through the thalamus? 

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Answer

No

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Question

Where do the olfactory receptors mainly sit?

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Answer

Within the nasal epithelium.

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Question

True or False: Chemoreceptors, or chemical receptors, sense chemicals found in the environment and transmit information about those chemicals to the brain. 

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Answer

True 

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Question

What is another word for "smell"?

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Answer

Olfactory 

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Question

What is another word for "taste"? 

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Answer

Gustatory 

Show question

Question

True or False: Our gustatory system is the system that allows us to be able to smell things. 

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

True or False: Our olfactory system is the system that allows us to be able to taste things. 

Show answer

Answer

False 

Show question

Question

True or False: Our ability to taste starts with the tongue and the tastebuds found on it.  

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank: Tastebuds are located throughout the tongue and are found in structures called ___________.  

Show answer

Answer

papillae 

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank: An average healthy human can tell the difference between around 1 _________ different odors.  

Show answer

Answer

trillion 

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Question

How many cranial nerves do humans have altogether? 

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Answer

12 

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Question

Approximately how many scent receptors does the olfactory system have? 

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Answer

450

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank: The ability to taste is split up on the tongue and the ______.  

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Answer

pharynx 

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Question

Fill in the blank: The ___________ is the anatomical name for our throat.  

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Answer

pharynx 

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Question

True or False: Savory is also known as umami. 

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Answer

True 

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank: The connection between smell and memory is immensely strong due to the location of scent processing in the ________ _______ of the brain. (2 words) 

Show answer

Answer

limbic system 

Show question

Question

True or False: In some instances, losing the sense of smell can be a sign of a more serious condition such as Parkinson's disease, or Alzheimer's.  

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

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