February 4, 2016 | News | Living with MSMS Symptoms

Loss of taste sensation in multiple sclerosis

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A new study in the U.S. evaluated taste sensation in people with MS and found that a high proportion had difficulty identifying and discriminating different tastes (Doty and colleagues. J Neurol 2016; epublished January 25, 2016). The most common difficulty was in detecting saltiness – which affected 1 in 3 people – followed by sugary, sour and caffeine.

Taste is a complex sensation. Taste is influenced by your sense of smell, and the competing pleasures of other tastes (Stevens & Cain. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 1993;33:27-37). The complexity of the substance you’re tasting is also a factor: detecting sugar in water is easier than sugar in foods (which explains the high sugar content in processed foods).

Detecting and distinguishing tastes involves the taste buds, the nerves in your face (primarily the facial and glossopharyngeal nerves), and the thalamus, brainstem and other structures in the central nervous system (Heckmann & Lang. Adv Otorhinolaryngol 2006;63:255-264). In the U.S. study, taste impairment was correlated with the number of brain lesions on the person’s MRI, which were interfering with the processing of taste information. Similarly, there have been reports of impairments in taste (and smell) during an MS relapse (Benatru and colleagues. Rev Neurol [Paris] 2003;159:287-292).

As a general rule, women with MS appear to be “more tasteful” than men: their sense of taste is generally less impaired (Doty 2016). This is in line with other taste studies in people with MS, which have found that women typically experience certain tastes (such as sour or caffeine) more intensely than do men (Hyde & Feller. Neurobiol Aging 1981;2:315-318).

If you’re finding food less flavourful, there are a couple of things that can be done to enhance taste sensations. Adding seasoning (rather than salt) can improve the taste of food. Quitting smoking will help since smoking does tend to overwhelm more subtle flavours. And brushing your tongue when you brush your teeth can also help. MS medications or a course of steroids will reduce the inflammatory flare-up in the brain that occurs during a relapse, and your sensation of taste may improve as your relapse symptoms subside.

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