When you drink a soda, you may not think it has much in common with horseradish or peppers, but your body does. 

New research from USC says the carbon dioxide in fizzy drinks triggers the same pain sensors in the nasal cavity as mustard or other spicy foods, though at a lower intensity.  That burning sensation people feel in different degrees comes from a system of nerves that respond to sensations of pain, skin pressure and temperature in the nose and mouth.

“Carbonation evokes two distinct sensations,” said Emily Liman,
 associate professor of neurobiology at USC College and senior author of the study. “It makes things sour, and it also makes them burn. We have all felt that noxious tingling sensation when soda goes down your throat too fast.   What we did not know was which cells and which molecules within those cells are responsible for the painful sensation we experience when we drink a carbonated soda.” 

By flowing carbonated saline onto a dish of nerve cells from the sensory circuits in the nose and mouth, the researchers found that the gas activated only a particular type of cell.

“The cells that responded to CO2 were the same cells that detect mustard,” Liman said.

These cells, which express a gene known as TRPA1, serve as general pain sensors.   Cells from mice missing the TRPA1 gene showed “a greatly reduced response” to carbon dioxide, Liman said, while adding the TRPA1 genetic code to CO2-insensitive cells made them responsive to the gas.

Now that carbonated beverages have been linked to pain circuits, some may wonder why we consume them. A new park in Paris even features drinking fountains that dispense free sparkling water.

Liman cited studies going back as far as 1885 that found carbonation dramatically reduced the growth of bacteria.

"Or it may be a macho thing," she speculated.  If only a sip of San Pellegrino were all it took to prove one’s hardiness.

The pain-sensing TRPA1 provides only one aspect of carbonation’s sensory experience. In 2009, a group led by Charles Zuker of the University of California, San Diego and Nicholas Ryba of the National Institutes of Health showed that carbonation triggers cells in the tongue that convey sourness.

The National Institutes of Health funded the research.

Citation: Yuanyuan Y. Wang, Rui B. Chang, Emily R. Liman, 'TRPA1 Is a Component of the Nociceptive Response to CO2', J. Neurosci., Sep 2010; 30: 12958 - 12963 ; doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2715-10.2010 (open access!)