Neurogastronomy header showing neurons and orange slices


Food can be one of life’s great joys, but for cancer patients, eating can become a chore.

Cancer therapies can cause loss of smell, affecting how flavors are perceived on a person’s palate. The result can be devastating: patients losing the desire to eat at a time when they need balanced nutrition the most.

It’s a problem Dan Han, PsyD, clinical section chief of neuropsychology at UK HealthCare, also encounters. Han works with patients who have brain injuries and neurodegenerative disorders, many of whom describe loss of smell and, in tandem, changes in the way food tastes. Like most clinicians, Han had observed these issues in his own patients for years but viewed these side effects as unavoidable.

“I ask every one of my patients now, ‘How’s your smell and taste? How is that aspect of your quality of life?’” – Dan Han, PsyD

That changed in 2012, after a chance encounter with internationally renowned chef Fred Morin. Han and Morin discovered they shared a passion for neurogastronomy, the science of the brain and behavior in relation to food. Their conversation inspired Han to reconsider how this science could help patients with brain injuries or cancer. Could foods be designed that adjusted for the flavor perception issues reported by these patients?

International Society of Neurograstronomy

Tasting stations at the International Society of Neurogastronomy Symposium 2015

Tasting stations gave attendees a hands-on sensory experience of the relationship between science and taste. Dishes were sampled by patients with taste impairment caused by chemotherapy.

Two years later, Han, Morin and others co-founded the International Society of Neurogastronomy (ISN) with the intent to start answering this very question. In late 2015, the ISN held its first symposium at UK HealthCare. Chefs, doctors, clinical psychologists, agriculturists, researchers and cancer patients gathered for the event, which included roundtable discussions and engaging presentations. During the symposium, Morin engineered a taste test for a UK Markey Cancer Center patient in which Morin and other chefs presented dishes with manipulated flavors intended to make them more palatable. The Markey patient – and others involved – provided favorable, insightful feedback on the results.

In fact, the response to the entire event was so enthusiastic that Han and others in the ISN began to think about how to expand the organization’s scope. In response, the 2016 symposium will also consider how food can be manipulated to enhance the taste perception of healthy foods, and potentially make unhealthy and carcinogenic foods less appealing. As a result, the ISN could seek not only to improve the flavors of food for patients with impaired smell and taste but also help prevent cancer and illness in the first place.

Beyond advancing the field of neurogastronomy and its wealth of potential, Han hopes that the ISN’s work can help clinicians better understand the importance of taste perception for a patient’s well-being. Indeed, he finds his own approach has been changed by his research. 

“I ask every one of my patients now, ‘How’s your smell and taste? How is that aspect of your quality of life?’” Han said. “It wasn’t until started asking that I noticed how many people will tell you that it has been compromised. But nobody’s asked about it and they never thought to bring it up because they never heard of mentioning that type of thing in the doctor’s office.”

“We’re trying to challenge that,” he adds, “so that patients undergoing treatment can recover their quality of life – a little bit at least.”

Page last updated: 1/13/2017 5:38:58 PM