Human lungs have taste buds?

Yes, says a recent study in Nature Medicine.

The accidental finding that sounds like science fiction may actually offer succor to asthma patients.

Scientists at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins tested mouse and human lung tissue. Not only did they find taste receptors similar to the taste buds on our tongues, they also found that different tastes triggered effects in the tissue.

For example, bitter flavors relaxed the lung tissue tremendously — better than any other medication tested in the trials.

This could hold great importance for patients suffering from asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Bitter flavors could open their airways, often constricted and tightened during an attack.

However, don’t think simply eating the bitter foods would help. The researchers believe aerosolized forms of the bitter substances will work best.

The lungs’ taste receptors do differ from tongue taste buds. The lung buds are not found in clusters, and they do not send any signals to our brains. Additionally, they can only sense bitter flavors, instead of the sour, sweet, salty and umami scope our tongue can detect.

The researchers found the lung receptors accidentally. They exposed the bitter tasting compounds including quinine, chloroquinine and saccharin (sweet at first but has a bitter aftertaste) to human and mouse airways, individual airway smooth muscle cells and to mice with asthma.

The thought was that since many plant poisons are bitter, the bitter stimuli would engender a fight or flight response. Instead, the authors say, it opened the airway more profoundly than any known drug for the treatment of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

It is unknown whether the lung taste buds are vestiges from an earlier evolutionary adaptation.

The authors caution further research is needed before asthma sufferers forgo their inhalers.

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