Your tongue can detect a range of tastes and temperatures, and it helps you speak, swallow and even sing. But how much do you know about its different parts? The fungiform papillae are just one portion of this incredible muscle that performs important tasks for our bodies.
Papillae: Form and Function
Papillae are the tiny raised protrusions on the tongue that contain taste buds. The four types of papillae are filiform, fungiform, foliate and circumvallate. These papillae, with the exception of the filiform, allow us to differentiate between sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami (or savory) flavors.
Your tongue has between 200 and 400 mushroom-shaped fungiform papillae scattered across its surface, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. They range across the dorsum or top of the tongue, but are mostly concentrated on the sides and on the tip. Each papilla contains three to five taste buds, adding up to more than 1,500 receptors overall. These versatile papillae not only detect flavor, but also sense temperature and touch.
Your tongue's sensory cells help you to enjoy food, but also to avoid pain and poison, writes the American Academy of Otolaryngology. By sending information to nearby nerve fibers and on to the gustatory (taste-related) portion of your brain, papillae alert your body to dangers like rotten food, poisonous gases or smoke.
The Life of a Papilla
Abnormal enlargement or loss of the taste papillae can be caused by a variety of factors. Smoking, nutritional deficiencies, certain medications, illness and old age can all alter the number and function of these sensory organs.
Our ability to taste is also related to our ability to smell. The olfactory nerve, stimulated by smell, helps taste buds communicate the flavors that they absorb to the brain. Colds and other upper respiratory illnesses can affect smell and taste, explains the National Institutes of Health.
Conditions That Affect the Tongue
A mild allergic reaction, certain viruses, or even stress can sometimes inflame the papillae in a condition called transient lingual papillitis. Fortunately, this pimple-like irritation is temporary and should go away in a matter of days, says Medical News Today.
A very painful condition related to altered taste buds is burning mouth syndrome, notes the Cleveland Clinic. This condition causes a burning sensation on the tongue, palate and other parts of the mouth and can occur without warning. Burning mouth syndrome is connected to the ability to detect bitter tastes on the tip of the tongue. If this sensation is lost, pain receptors in the tongue become overactive. The cause of spontaneous burning mouth syndrome is unknown, but folate, B12 and iron deficiencies, and mouth infections may cause a similar sensation.
Cancer treatment – namely chemotherapy and radiation – can also alter taste perception. Cancer Treatment Centers of America reports that more than two-thirds of cancer patients experience a diminished sense of taste and smell during and after treatment.
The papillae are versatile sensory organs that help us to enjoy our foods and drinks, so take care of your taste buds. Whatever your favorite flavors are, you need your fungiform papillae to enjoy them!