A fascinating study that may open a gateway for clearer communication in people with nerve damage affecting the tongue.
A person’s tongue may not be needed for taste or speech, according to a new study conducted at California State University, Long Beach.
CSULB Professor Betty McMicken, PhD, initiated the project and partnered with Professor Long Wang, PhD, to conduct the study. They examined the taste and speaking abilities of a person born without a tongue, a condition called Isolated Congenital Aglossia (ICA).
There is now evidence that alternative parts of the mouth may be responsible for detecting taste and used for creating intelligible words, McMicken said.
Wang, a registered dietitian/nutritionist at the university’s Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, was responsible for the study’s design.
“By studying ICA, we can learn something to help bigger populations,” Wang said, referring to oral cancer patients and those with cancer in the head or neck. He said these cancer survivors could lose their tongue or taste due to surgery or radiation therapy.
Rehabilitation for those who have had their tongue removed includes primarily swallowing and speech functions, Wang said. He said one aim is to improve these rehabilitation measures.
McMicken, an associate professor in CSULB’s Department of Speech-Language Pathology, was an investigator in the study and said she plans to conduct more studies in the near future.
“With these findings, additional research on the subject can be conducted to develop rehabilitation regimens that could potentially allow those without a tongue to regain their ability to taste and to speak in a more understandable manner,” McMicken said. “The results of these investigations may be promising in maintaining and improving quality of life.”
The study focused on Kelly Rogers, one of eight people in the world today with confirmed Congenital Aglossia (CA) and one of 11 ICA cases recorded in literature in the last 300 years, McMicken said.
“Indeed, there are very few living individuals currently known to have this condition,” Wang said. “However, both Betty (McMicken) and I firmly believe that there are unreported cases. In fact, after the research was reported, new cases have surfaced.”
Wang said that, to his knowledge, this is the only published study that has tested a subject with ICA. Normally, people born without tongues, Congenital Aglossia (CA), experience other abnormalities, McMicken said.
What makes Rogers unique is that she has no other abnormality and has not had corrective surgeries (hence Isolated CA), Wang said. Because of this, he added, they were able to focus solely on the impacts of taste and speech in the first randomized controlled study of a person with ICA.
Rogers was tested for five different taste types, including sweet, sour, salty and bitter. This was also the first study to test Umami, a type of taste, in a person with ICA, according to McMicken and Wang.
Outside of the study, Rogers is McMicken’s assistant. They have had lunch together several times a week for the last two years, McMicken said. She said it was during these luncheons that her idea for a study emerged. She was always fascinated, she said, with how well Rogers ate and spoke and wondered how Rogers could taste.
“Kelly (Rogers) has become my recent assistant, my good friend, and hopefully soon she will become my student,” McMicken said. “I have trouble finding words to express my gratitude to Kelly for all that she is teaching me.”
Rogers was responsible for researching background information on taste and taste testing. She is finishing her associate’s degree and plans to enter the Speech-Language pathology department at CSULB.
Andrew Kunihiro, a graduate student in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at CSULB, contributed to the study as well.
“We’re going to repeat the study in the spring,” McMicken said. “We will attempt to distinguish areas in the oral cavity that are sensitive to taste.”
The study was conducted over the Spring 2014 semester and was published in the Journal of Oral Biology and Craniofacial Research in September.
Since then, McMicken has received “Honors of the Association,” the highest honors for a lifetime of achievement from the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) at the organization’s annual convention in November. ASHA honored McMicken for the last 48 years she spent in research, clinical and administrative work as a speech-language pathologist, including her study on a person with ICA.