While individually identical to their counterparts in the mouth, the taste buds were found to have a few key differences. Most notably, only non-clustered bitter taste receptors were present. Sweet, salty, sour, and savory tastes showed no recognition in the region. The lung taste buds also had no feedback loop to the brain; hence, they lack the ability to create conscious perception of taste.
The implications of this discovery go far beyond rewriting an underlying assumption of physiology. While lacking a neurological pathway with the brain, these taste receptors directly affect the lungs in a spectacular fashion. Specifically, when exposed to bitter substances, the taste receptors consistently triggered strong airway dilations.
After surmounting their initial skepticism, the researchers quickly recognized the clinical possibilities. Asthma and many other debilitating respiratory conditions afflict their victim through progressive lung airway contraction. Conventional treatment in turn focuses upon drugs to dilate them.
To quote head researcher Professor Liggett:
It turns out that the bitter compounds worked the opposite way from what we thought. They all opened the airway more profoundly than any known drug that we have for treatment of asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Interestingly, these results suggest an empirical validation for Traditional Chinese Medical Theory. According to Five Element Theory, many different systems can be divided into constituent parts corresponding to each of the five elements. This pattern holds true for each internal organ and taste. The lungs correspond to the Metal element, while bitter represents the Fire element.
According to Five Element Theory each element has the ability to control another element. Fire for instance metaphorically controls metal through melting it, a concept regularly utilized by acupuncturists in clinical practice for treating the Lungs. This is an interesting parallel to the findings of Professor Liggett's team.
The natural bitter substances tested were non-toxic, unlike their current pharmaceutical counterparts. This research has opened many exciting new avenues for natural medicine.
The practice of Chinese Medicine: The Treatment of Diseases with Acupuncture and Chinese Herbs by Giovanni Mascocia