How Much Do We Really Know About Your Tongue?

This new model is the most complete guide for understanding the “complex interweaving” of our tongue muscles

A new and improved model of the human tongue.
A new and improved model of the human tongue. Sanders and Mu, The Anatomical Record

Though the human tongue is one of our most important structures, write the authors of a new paper, it’s also one of the least understood. To dispel some of the mystery, their study models where each muscle in the tongue is positioned and also indicates those muscles’ association with the jaw, reports Charles Q. Choi for ScienceNOW. Eventually, the model could reveal some of the intricacies of how we talk, eat and swallow.

Choi describes their findings, revealed in the 3D computer model they built:

Unlike arms and legs that rely on bones to behave in a familiar way, like classical levers, tongues operate bonelessly like the tentacles of an octopus, with the motion of any lone muscle depending on the activity of surrounding muscles in a complex manner that researchers do not yet fully grasp. A number of tongue muscles overlap so extensively, for example, that they might best be treated as a single entity.

To build a better tongue model, the researchers drew upon images of a male and female tongue taken from the Visible Human Project, which is creating complete 3D representations of a male and female body by scanning millimeter-thin slices of two donated cadavers. The researchers also drew upon slices from three other human tongues, which they made translucent in order to better study their inner structures. According to the paper authors:

One reason for the relative lack of research on the human tongue is its complex anatomy. This is a real barrier to investigators as there are few anatomical resources in the literature that show this complex anatomy clearly. As a result, the diagnosis and treatment of tongue disorders lags behind that for other structures of the head and neck.

The researchers think this new model represents the clearest, most complete guide for understanding the “complex interweaving” of muscles that make up this single, unique organ.

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