In one the more fascinating pieces of research to come out of Cal State Long Beach (CSULB) recently, the work of Dr. Betty McMicken and Professor Long Wang of the Department of Speech-Language Pathology might be saying something we never thought: we might not need our tongues to speak or taste.
McMicken [pictured left], a renowned speech therapist, has long been interested in the abilities (or possible lack thereof) associated with no tongue, including researching an incredibly rare disorder known as isolated congenital aglossia (ICA), a diagnosis applied to someone born without a tongue.
Nearly 28 years ago, she was introduced to Kelly Rogers, then 16, a Mission Viejo woman with ICA that could speak incredibly clear. Rogers was fascinating on multiple levels: not only was Rogers (at the time) one of eleven people to noted in medical literature with the disorder since 1718, Rogers’ abilities could alter how we help rehabilitate those who have lost parts of or the entirety of their tongue due to cancer—the Center for Disease Control states that 40K people have been diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer, many of whom undergo tongue removal—accidents or other means.
McMicken and Wang now say there are a little under 10 people estimated to be living in the world with ICA since their research expanded in the field, research that provided McMicken an Honors of the Association award earlier this year from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
“I feel a bit overwhelmed by this honor. Previous recipients have included my mentors, people who took me under their wings and I am grateful to now be considered among them,” said McMicken in a statement. “If I can make a difference to others in the way my mentors did for me, that would be a wonderful bonus.”
The pair conducted tests on Ms. Rogers, including “the detection of basic tastes and the involvement of different parts of the mouth and throat during the pronunciation of different speech sounds.” The original hypothesis was that Ms. Rogers wouldn’t taste anything or be able to speak in a manner that comprehensive to others. However, Rogers was able to taste all five of the basic tastes—making this first study to report that unami was sensed by someone with ICA—as well as pronouncing intelligible syllables at a 78% rate and “completely intelligible contextual speech.”
“The research findings are significant because they demonstrate that the tongue is not essential for humans to detect taste or to produce intelligible speech,” said Wang in a statement. “There are currently unknown receptors and other structures of signal delivery in this subject that serve as an alternative mechanism for taste recognition and the production of speech.”