The chemical senses function as gatekeepers to and guardians of the body. As such, any degree of impaired functioning of these sentinel senses is likely to have health implications. From a broad perspective, most research at Monell can be considered to be health-related. More specifically, many studies directly address the contribution of taste and smell to maintaining optimal health, while others reveal how changes in taste and smell function contribute to human disease and pathology.
The mouth and nose provide direct access to the body for substances that may either be needed for survival or potentially poisonous and deadly. Thus, even seemingly trivial changes in the normal function of these senses are likely to have some level of health-related implications.
Over the past 45 years, pioneering work at Monell has increased the understanding of taste and smell problems as disease states. Studies explored the causes of taste and smell problems and documented their progression and the prognoses for recovery. Related work developed valuable clinical measures of taste and smell function and investigated diverse issues related to taste and smell problems, revealing the wide-spread impact of these senses on quality of life.
As part of this effort, almost 2,000 research participants with primary complaints of decreased, loss or distortion of smell and/or taste have been evaluated, resulting in one of the world’s largest databases on chemosensory dysfunction. Moving forward, a new research program is seeking to identify the biological causes of anosmia (smell loss) and explore the use of olfactory stem cells as a potential treatment approach.
Health-Related Research at Monell
Another important and extensive series of studies focuses on the role of taste receptors in the gut. Increased understanding of the complex relationships linking taste receptor biology, metabolic hormones, and eating behavior will reveal new approaches to confront metabolic diseases, including obesity and diabetes.
Oleocanthal, a compound found in extra virgin olive oil, has potent anti-inflammatory properties that were first discovered by Monell scientists. Because inflammation plays a key role in many diseases, ongoing studies are evaluating the therapeutic potential of olive oil in the prevention and treatment of a range of disease states, including cancer, mucositis and radiation-induced taste loss.
Other cancer-related research focuses on identifying volatile compounds associated with skin cancer. These critical studies will set the stage for the development of non-invasive screening devices to enable early detection and treatment of this and other widespread diseases. A similar project focuses on ovarian cancer.
The human body produces numerous volatile chemical compounds, and researchers at Monell are identifying the origins and functions of human body odors. Individuals with malodor disorders can have a diminished quality of life, with social, psychological, and business implications, and often the causes of their disorders elude standard clinical knowledge.
Many more studies at Monell advance human health and well-being, including research that explores:
- Odor perception and symptom response of asthmatics
- Effect of smoking and obesity on food cravings and taste preferences in women
- Modulation of women’s mood states by tobacco and alcohol
- Pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of alcohol during lactation
- Sensitive periods in flavor learning, including how babies learn about food flavors and the effect of early experiences on food liking and acceptance
- The taste system of mosquitoes, with the goal of developing novel means of preventing malaria transmission
- Amino acid appetite and the body’s protein requirements
- The impact of nasal obstruction on olfactory function in patients with chronic rhinosinusitis
- The impact of sinus surgery on nasal airflow and odorant transport
- Neural control of inflammation in obesity
- Effects of radiation for head, neck and throat cancers on taste function
- Metabolic side effects of atypical antipsychotics
- Relation of insulin resistance to taste sensitivity