The magical tongue

The human tongue is fascinating to say the least. Without it you cannot taste, you cannot talk or sing, you cannot feel the temperature of what you are ingesting and you cannot do inane things like touching your nose, picking teeth or checking if they are there, affixing stamps and closing envelopes, whistling for fun or calling attention….Ever wondered why people lick a wound? All animals do so, humans also do it. Some years back, I read something about it, but promptly forgot, even though I would automatically lick a finger that got cut or burnt. It could very well be an evolutionary aspect and have a scientific base…but that is my hypothesis of course

Peter Aldhous of New Scientist explains in his article - Our mouths are full of potentially dangerous fungi and bacteria. Yet even when we bite our tongues, the wounds rarely become infected. Now American researchers have explained why our mouths are so resistant to infection. Whenever a mammal's tongue is damaged, they say, the wounded tissues respond by making large quantities of a natural antiseptic….Several of the substances had antimicrobial effects, but Schonwetter's team decided to concentrate on the most abundant, a chemical they called lingual antimicrobial peptide (LAP). Another detailed NY Times article where Lawrence Altman adds - Because human tongues and cow tongues are similar, the human tongue may have an antibiotic defense mechanism similar to the cow tongue antibiotic, a short protein known as a peptide, said Dr. Michael A. Zasloff, the head of the team from the Magainin Research Institute. The most abundant peptide the team found was one they called L.A.P, for lingual antimicrobial peptide. L.A.P.'s structure resembles other beta defensins that other scientists have found in the respiratory passageway of cows, the white blood cells that fight infection, and in the Paneth cells in the lining of the human small intestine. A technical paper on the subject for those interested.

LAP codes are covered by US patent 5656738 issued to Schonwetter & Zasloff – It explains - Despite is constant exposure to microbials, invasive infections of the tongue rarely ensue even when abrasions occur on the tongue's surface. In investigating the infection resistance property of the mammalian tongue, a novel antibacterial and antifungal peptide was isolated from the extracts of bovine tongue epithelial tissue. LAP has broad spectrum antimicrobial activity against Gram-negative bacteria, Gram-positive bacterial and fungal pathogens. The peptide may also have antiviral activity.

Why did Indian and Chinese doctors check your tongue (at least they did in my younger days)? It's amazing that your tongue can actually mirror your health. The condition of your tongue can help a doctor determine your overall state of health and often give them valuable diagnostic clues without resorting to expensive tests or invasive procedures. A detailed explanation on the diagnoses can be found on MSN here. Dr Chitambaram’s explanation basis can be read in this article.

Tongue cleaning was always practiced in India, but is not so popular in Western countries. Now it is catching on and the old ‘Irkili’ has given way to metallic tongue cleaners ( I had a tough time explaining it to airport security once) then the plastic cleaner strips and now the ring type…Newer brushes have a rough coating on one side to scrape tongues!! What does that do? By removing the soft plaque from the tongue dorsum (especially the anaerobic, posterior areas), you are removing most of the bacteria and other debris that are the primary source of gaseous volatile-sulfur compounds (halitosis), hard plaque (tartar) and mineral leaching acids (tooth decay). If you wanted to know the relationship between oral bacteria and heart disease, take a look at an earlier blog of mine.

And all this brought a question to my mind – why did Albert Einstein stick out his tongue in this ever popular photograph? The Einstein website explains

It was taken on Einstein’s 72nd birthday in Princeton on March 14, 1951 by a press photographer. The original picture shows Einstein sitting on the backseat of a car between Dr Frank Aydelotte, the former head of the Institute for Advanced Study, and his wife. Albert Einstein and the Aydelottes were just returning from an event which had taken place in honour of Einstein. Einstein was, though already sitting in the car, still bullied by reporters and photographers. They didn’t let him be and he is said to have shouted: "That’s enough, that’s enough!" However, these words didn’t hinder the photographers from taking some more pictures of Einstein and his companions. And when he still was asked to pose for a birthday picture he really grew tired of the journalists and the photographers and as encouraging words didn’t help any more, he stuck out his tongue to his "prosecutors". One of the photographers pressed the button of his camera in just this moment. Einstein liked the picture very much. He cut it into shape so only he can still be seen. Then he had made several copies of it and sent the thus "manipulated" picture as a greeting card to friends later on.

Here is a great snippet on the tongue by David Wright – The tongue has a bone connected to it!! This is the hyoid or lingual bone, a "horse-shoe shaped" bone in the tongue responsible for its movement. It is connected to the tips of what is known as the styloid processes of the temporal bones via styloid ligaments and despite this is the only bone in the human body that is not articulated by another bone. It is interesting to note that this bone is not found in our closest relatives (i.e. chimps and apes); however is seen in Neanderthal man and so, since this bone is of great use in speech suggests that Neanderthal man employed at least some form of speech. This is often the bone that when fractured can indicate that a victim has been strangled and so is of great importance in murder inquiries

Tongue picture from


Anonymous said...

I always wondered if this tongue-cleaning was an purely Indian thing... I have heard some old people make such a huge racket while cleaning it.

Lakshmi Bharadwaj said...

Wow, that Einstein's picture had always interested me!! So now i know why he did that! Very informative post, was really interesting.

Maddy said...

Thanks Pradeep - Tongue cleaning is catching up fast. Now we have brushes & special cleaners in the market here!!

Hi Lakshmi - Seeing you around after a long time, welcome back. Glad you enjoyed the post. Hope college is treating you fine.