COVID-19 UpdatesHCN News & Notes

UMass Amherst Food Scientist Part of Effort to Unravel Mysteries of COVID-19

AMHERST — With the rapid onset of smell and taste loss emerging as symptoms of COVID-19, scientists around the world — including a sensory expert at UMass Amherst — have united to investigate the connection between the chemical senses and the novel coronavirus.

The wave of reports from patients and clinicians about anosmia, or smell loss, inspired the creation of the Global Consortium of Chemosensory Researchers. Alissa Nolden, UMass Amherst assistant professor of Food Science, is among the 500 clinicians, neurobiologists, data and cognitive scientists, sensory researchers, and technicians from 38 countries gathering data in a worldwide survey to unravel how the virus is transmitted and how to prevent its spread.

Nolden was invited by a colleague at the National Institutes of Health to help develop strategies around measuring the sensory-related symptoms of the coronavirus. “Smell and/or taste loss may be an early indicator of COVID-19, as individuals appear to report loss of smell or taste prior to other symptoms,” she said. “We also want to better understand the mechanism behind taste and smell loss as a result of this virus.”

She notes that the common cold, influenza, and other viral infections are known to cause changes in smell, which are thought to be related to blocked or stuffed-up nasal passages. “This prevents both smelling odors outside and inside the mouth, which can also result in reduced perception of food flavor,” she said. “But typically, you do not have a reduced sense of taste, meaning your perception of sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami remain the same.”

Another interesting characteristic of COVID-19, Nolden said, is that some patients also appear to have a reduced sense of chemesthesis, or chemical sensitivity. “This is unique, unlike the common cold. Some individuals have reduced oral burn from chili peppers or reduced or loss of cooling sensation from menthol.”

Nolden noted that some people with COVID-19 who experience sensory losses may not have any other coronavirus symptoms. The researchers hope to learn more about this from the survey, since people with sensory symptoms alone are not likely to qualify for a COVID-19 test.

“This has been a tremendous effort from collaborators from around the globe to gain a better understanding of the negative impact of COVID-19 on loss of taste and smell,” she said. “We hope to learn a lot about these symptoms and believe it will have a great impact on our understanding of the virus.”