A permeability barrier surrounds taste buds in lingual epithelia

Am J Physiol Cell Physiol. 2015 Jan 1;308(1):C21-32. doi: 10.1152/ajpcell.00157.2014. Epub 2014 Sep 10.


Epithelial tissues are characterized by specialized cell-cell junctions, typically localized to the apical regions of cells. These junctions are formed by interacting membrane proteins and by cytoskeletal and extracellular matrix components. Within the lingual epithelium, tight junctions join the apical tips of the gustatory sensory cells in taste buds. These junctions constitute a selective barrier that limits penetration of chemosensory stimuli into taste buds (Michlig et al. J Comp Neurol 502: 1003-1011, 2007). We tested the ability of chemical compounds to permeate into sensory end organs in the lingual epithelium. Our findings reveal a robust barrier that surrounds the entire body of taste buds, not limited to the apical tight junctions. This barrier prevents penetration of many, but not all, compounds, whether they are applied topically, injected into the parenchyma of the tongue, or circulating in the blood supply, into taste buds. Enzymatic treatments indicate that this barrier likely includes glycosaminoglycans, as it was disrupted by chondroitinase but, less effectively, by proteases. The barrier surrounding taste buds could also be disrupted by brief treatment of lingual tissue samples with DMSO. Brief exposure of lingual slices to DMSO did not affect the ability of taste buds within the slice to respond to chemical stimulation. The existence of a highly impermeable barrier surrounding taste buds and methods to break through this barrier may be relevant to basic research and to clinical treatments of taste.

Keywords: DMSO; barrier; lingual epithelium; taste.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dimethyl Sulfoxide / pharmacology
  • Enzymes / metabolism
  • Epithelial Cells / drug effects
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism*
  • Fluoresceins / chemistry
  • Fluoresceins / metabolism
  • Fluorescent Dyes / chemistry
  • Fluorescent Dyes / metabolism
  • Membrane Potentials
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Molecular Weight
  • Permeability
  • Solvents / pharmacology
  • Stimulation, Chemical
  • Taste Buds / cytology
  • Taste Buds / drug effects
  • Taste Buds / metabolism*
  • Taste*
  • Tight Junctions / drug effects
  • Tight Junctions / metabolism*
  • Tongue / innervation*


  • Enzymes
  • Fluoresceins
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Solvents
  • 5-chloromethylfluorescein
  • Dimethyl Sulfoxide