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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 6th May 2016 > THE STOMACH WHISPERERS

THE STOMACH WHISPERERS

MAKING FOOD PALATABLE FOR PEOPLE WITH TASTE LOSS TAKES THE GENIUS OF BOTH NEUROSCIENTISTS AND TOP-NOTCH CHEFS

NEUROGASTRONOMY

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GINA MULLIN ALWAYS KEPT CHOCOLATE IN HER DESK DRAWER FOR AN AFTERNOON PICK-ME-UP, but a few years ago, in between rounds of chemotherapy, the Hershey’s kisses stopped tasting quite right. “I couldn’t even swallow,” she says. “That’s how bad it was.”

Mullin, 50 years old and a single mother of three daughters, was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer in 2005. Seven years later, the cancer returned, this time affecting her brain, liver, lungs and spine, and doctors say she’ll need chemotherapy every three weeks for the rest of her life. The aggressive care brings many challenges, but Mullin, once a prolific home cook, says her diminished enjoyment of food is one of the hardest. Years of cycling through treatments have dulled her sense of taste and smell. Everything she eats now needs more spices, sugar and salt, and often that’s still not enough to make her food palatable. Each month, a few days after chemotherapy, her mouth is flooded with the taste of metal that makes eating a chore.

This sort of taste deprivation is usually not a priority for physicians treating patients, like Mullin, with often fatal conditions that cause even more obviously debilitating problems, such as loss of motor skills, memory and cognition. The issue, though, is that sensory deficit doesn’t just mean burgers taste like cardboard—it can completely destroy appetite, cause patients to lose weight, prompt feelings of depression and isolation, and lead to undernourishment and anorexia. It can become a serious health problem, for which there’s currently no solution. “They didn’t offer any suggestions at all,” Mullin says of her doctors. “When I lost weight, sometimes they would say, ‘You know, there’s always juice drinks. You can drink and not have to eat.’”

Mullin is just one of millions who at some point experience taste and smell loss. In addition to cancer patients undergoing treatment, the problem also frequently occurs in people with conditions that affect the central nervous system, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Sometimes, the deficit is simply a consequence of aging. A recent study in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society that involved 3,000 adults suggests up to half of all elderly people have a poor sense of taste—and it’s unlikely that any are getting help.

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