Of the multiple neurotransmitters and neuropeptides expressed in the mammalian taste bud, serotonin remains both the most studied and least understood. Serotonin is expressed in a subset of taste receptor cells that form synapses with afferent nerve fibers (type III cells) and was once thought to be essential to neurotransmission (now understood as purinergic). However, the discovery of the 5-HT1A serotonin receptor in a subset of taste receptor cells paracrine to type III cell suggested a role in cell-to-cell communication during the processing of taste information. Functional data describing this role are lacking. Using anatomical and neurophysiological techniques, this study proposes a modulatory role for serotonin during the processing of taste information. Double labeling immunocytochemical and single cell RT-PCR technique experiments documented that 5-HT1A-expressing cells co-expressed markers for type II cells, cells which express T1R or T2R receptors and release ATP. These cells did not co-express type III cells markers. Neurophysiological recordings from the chorda tympani nerve, which innervates anterior taste buds, were performed prior to and during intravenous injection of a 5-HT1A receptor antagonist. These experiments revealed that serotonin facilitates processing of taste information for tastants representing sweet, sour, salty, and bitter taste qualities. On the other hand, injection of ondansetron, a 5-HT3 receptor antagonist, was without effect. Collectively, these data support the hypothesis that serotonin is a crucial element in a finely-tuned feedback loop involving the 5-HT1A receptor, ATP, and purinoceptors. It is hypothesized that serotonin facilitates gustatory signals by regulating the release of ATP through ATP-release channels possibly through phosphatidylinositol 4,5-bisphosphate resynthesis. By doing so, 5-HT1A activation prevents desensitization of post-synaptic purinergic receptors expressed on afferent nerve fibers and enhances the afferent signal. Serotonin may thus play a major modulatory role within peripheral taste in shaping the afferent taste signals prior to their transmission across gustatory nerves.
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