Regional variation of bitter taste and aftertaste in humans

Molly J. Higgins, John E. Hayes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Despite widespread and persistent myths of a tongue map, all 5 prototypical taste qualities are sensed over the entire tongue. However, modern psychophysical data also suggest there may be more nuanced differences in suprathreshold intensity across oral loci, especially for bitterness. Here, we test whether bitter stimuli matched for whole-mouth intensity differ in perceived intensity across regions of the oral cavity in 2 experiments. Experiment 1 consisted of a whole-mouth sip and spit approach and Experiment 2 consisted of a spatial taste test using cotton swabs. In Experiment 1, participants (n = 63) rated overall intensity of 3 bitter solutions at 5 different loci (front, middle, back of tongue; roof of mouth; and lip). Temporal effects were explored using in-mouth and aftertaste ratings. In Experiment 2, participants (n = 48) rated the intensity of quinine and Tetralone solutions after solutions were painted on fungiform, circumvallate, and foliate papillae with a swab. After the spatial taste test, participants completed a questionnaire on self-reported beer intake. Analysis of variance results of both experiments show a significant locus by stimulus interaction, suggesting different bitterants were perceived differently across the various loci. This result was apparently driven by low-intensity ratings for Tetralone on the anterior tongue. Aftertaste ratings in Experiment 1 also revealed significant temporal effects: ratings on the anterior tongue decreased for all bitterants and ratings for quinine decreased at all loci. Reasons for these effects are not known but may suggest differential expression of bitter taste receptors or differences in bitter agonist-receptor binding affinity across tongue regions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)721-732
Number of pages12
JournalChemical senses
Issue number9
StatePublished - Oct 26 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Physiology
  • Sensory Systems
  • Physiology (medical)
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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