Capsaicin as a probe of the relationship between bitter taste and chemesthesis

Barry G. Green, John E. Hayes

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Previous studies have indicated that capsaicin, traditionally considered to be a pure chemesthetic stimulus, can evoke a bitter taste and might also cross-desensitize the tastes of some bitter and sour tastants. The purpose of the present study was to investigate further the scope and nature of capsaicin's effects on bitter taste. In Experiment 1, subjects rated the taste and burning/stinging of QSO4 (0.32 and 1.0 mM), saccharin (1.0 and 3.2 mM), urea (3.2 and 10 M), MgCl2, (0.18 and 0.56 M), PROP (0.32 mM), and sucrose (0.32 and 1.0 M) applied to the tongue tip with cotton swabs before and after 10 applications of 300 μM capsaicin. Capsaicin initially evoked a weak bitterness in some subjects that quickly diminished over repeated exposures. Following capsaicin treatment, the bitterness of QSO4, urea, MgCl2, and PROP was reduced, as was the burning sensation produced by MgCl2 and urea. In Experiment 2, we tested 29 subjects in the circumvallate (CV) region of the tongue using the same general procedure. Capsaicin induced a weak but persistent bitterness in a subset of subjects but failed to desensitize its own bitterness or that of any other tastant. Overall, the results confirm that capsaicin can both stimulate and desensitize bitter taste, but in amounts that vary for different bitter stimuli and between the front and back of the tongue. Possible reasons for these regional and stimulus-dependent differences are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)811-821
Number of pages11
JournalPhysiology and Behavior
Issue number4-5
StatePublished - Sep 2003

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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