Global Health Nexus, Summer 2002

Mastering the Mysteries of Taste and Smell Disorders

Andrew I. Spielman, D.M.D., Ph.D., is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Basic Science and Craniofacial Biology

Dr. Andrew I. Spielman doesn’t have to be reminded to stop and smell the roses. For nearly two decades, Dr. Spielman has been at the forefront of research investigating how smell and taste serve as screening mechanisms to distinguish chemicals in nature that cause either attraction or repulsion.

Dr. Spielman’s particular focus is on the key roles that taste and smell play in nutrition and food selection, including promoting or inhibiting pleasure, efficient metabolism, and a good overall quality of life. During the past decade, considerable progress has been made toward understanding the basic mechanisms of taste and smell, but there is still limited knowledge of taste and smell dysfunctions among many practitioners and the general public. Indeed, although more than two million Americans suffer from disorders that affect the sense of olfaction and/or gustation, chemosensory disorders do not evoke the same degree of public recognition as do hearing and vision impairment. Much remains to be done and current demographics underscore the need for speed.

Chemosensory dysfunctions affect a disproportionate number of the elderly, the fastest-growing segment of the population in the Western world. Hence, the importance of Dr. Spielman’s efforts, which seek to clarify the molecular events that underlie abnormal chemosensory function in order to improve diagnostic techniques.

For many chemosensory disorder sufferers, the problem is underdiagnosis because many dentists and physicians do not know what to look for. As a result, many patients become concerned about the seriousness of their disorder and develop depression. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that treatment of these disorders is still limited to conditions with discernible and reversible causes. “Yet,” says Dr. Spielman, “if people knew that they had an untreatable but not life-threatening disease, as most chemosensory disorders are, the likelihood is that they would cope with the situation better. We’re not yet very advanced in this area of health, but we have made a start. More research funding is needed to improve understanding of chemosensory mechanisms, develop better diagnostic procedures, and disseminate knowledge among practitioners and the general public.”