Cal State University Long Beach researchers Betty McMicken and Long Wang, left, have been working with Kelly Rogers, center, who was born with the rare condition Isolated Congenital Aglossia (born without a tongue). The three illustrate the testing process where Rogers would sample clear liquids and describe the taste. Friday, December 12, 2014, Long Beach, CA. (Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer)
Cal State University Long Beach researchers Betty McMicken and Long Wang have been working with Kelly Rogers, who was born with the rare condition Isolated Congenital Aglossia (born without a tongue). A photo diagram shows Rogers' mouth where the base of the mouth acts as a tongue. Friday, December 12, 2014, Long Beach, CA. (Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer)
LONG BEACH >> New research by two professors at Cal State Long Beach indicates that humans may not need tongues to talk or taste.
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Working with Kelly Rogers, a Saddleback College student who was born without a tongue but has been able to speak since she was a child, Betty McMicken, associate professor in the department of Speech-Language Pathology, and Long Wang, assistant professor of nutrition in the department of Family and Consumer Sciences, found that she detected all basic tastes.
The research may lead to help for those who have partially or completely lost their tongues — through a procedure called a glossectomy — because of cancer or other reasons.
“She’s changing the vocal shape, horn, the resonator,” McMicken said. “So the more we know about that, the more we can help individuals who have had injuries or surgery. The other thing is that we have not explored taste in individuals who have had glossectomies, partial glossectomies, head and neck cancer, even neurological deficits.”
McMicken, a professor, clinician and researcher in speech-language pathology for more than 48 years, was recently graced with the “Honors of the Association” from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, which recognizes people in communication sciences and disorders for excellence in the areas of teaching, research, community service and professional expertise.
She and Wang have been looking into isolated congenital aglossia, the rare condition in which a person is born without a tongue. Rogers, their test case, is one of 11 people recorded in medical literature since 1718 to have the condition, and there are fewer than 10 in the world today who have it, McMicken said.
She and Rogers first met in 1986 when Rogers, who learned to talk at a young age with muscles in her mouth and throat, arrived at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana to see if doctors could reconstruct her jaw at the age of 16.
McMicken and a team of doctors determined that surgery would affect Rogers’ ability to speak. But McMicken never forgot Rogers. She and a medical team recorded audio and video of Rogers speaking.
It was about 25 years later that she started looking for Rogers. The two connected in 2012 after a Press-Telegram article about McMicken’s research and her quest to locate Rogers, who eventually became the professor’s research assistant.
With Rogers as their test subject, McMicken and Wang conducted several tests on taste, and parts of her mouth and throat while she spoke.
In addition to her speech, they discovered she could detect the major tastes, from sour and sweet to bitter and salty. The study consisted of her identifying tastes from liquids mixed with flavoring, and it was the first to show umami — the taste from glutamate, an amino acid found naturally in many foods — as detectable by a person without a tongue.
The muscle mass in the floor of her mouth has been built up through years of speaking. The mass contracts and relaxes and she is able to touch the muscle to her palate. Other structures of the mouth are involved in Rogers’ ability to speak.
One of the more interesting aspects of Rogers’ condition, the researchers said, was that she has had no medical intervention.
“What we’ve been observing is the natural condition, the natural progression,” Wang said. “Because Betty came to know Kelly almost three decades ago and all the records are here, it’s been really fascinating to follow someone for so long.”
Rogers is one of the co-authors on a paper about the taste experiment, published online in August in the Journal of Oral Biology and Craniofacial Research.
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Her parents were told by doctors she might never be able to speak normally, if at all. She said while growing up, people didn’t believe she was without a tongue, because she spoke so well. Rogers plans to study speech-language pathology at CSULB.
Like other college students, she enjoys stout beers.
“I just had this beer, Xocoveza, by Stone,” she said. “Oh my gosh. Good stuff.”
McMicken said Rogers is a unique case, and continued studies will prove valuable for people who will need their tongues completely or partially removed.
She looked at Rogers and said, “I’ve got a lot to learn from you.”