We’ve long known our sense of smell is associated with well-being – from eras we strewed sweet-smelling herbs and flowers to mask foul odours (back when we assumed bad smells spread disease), to now using scented candles and personal fragrances to enhance how we feel. But something the IFRA Fragrance Forum always does so well is delve deeper into current scientific research, bringing together experts from around the world who may never usually meet, but who all share the sense of smell as a common theme of their reserach.
We’re always thrilled to attend the IFRA Fragrance Forum, and last week once again had our minds’ blown by the fascinating lectures we spent all day listening to, this time at the Wellcome Institute, and fittingly for World Mental Health Day, each speaker centered on the importance of smell not just on our emotional responses, but how it might be used to detect, research and even treat many neurodegenerative diseases.
We cannot possibly recount all of their research and statistics here, but urge you to seek out the speakers and read more about what they’re doing. Meanwhile, here’s a mere snapshot of the smell-studies that made our jaws drop to the floor…
The Woman Who Can Smell Parkinson’s Disease
Dr. Tilo KunathTilo Kunath from Edinburgh University talked about the extensive research he’s undertaken into the smell of Parkinson’s disease having met Joy Milne – an incredible woman who was able to detect the difference in her husband’s odour before he was diagnosed. We now know, as she’s been tested, that Joy is a ‘super smeller’ – someone born with a superior sense of smell, comparable to trained sniffer dogs.
Joy spoke so movingly about her journey of discovery, from being dismissed as a ‘a bit of a weirdo’ to finally convincing doctors to take her seriously. Joy had always loved her husband’s natural skin smell, she explained, and one day she realised he smelled completely different: ‘Odd. Sour-smelling… just not his smell.’ It was only when she and her husband (who’d then been diagnosed with PD) attended a conference for Parkinson’s sufferers, she was hit by a wall of that same smell when she first entered the room. Turning to her husband, she remarked ‘Les, they all smell like you…’ And it was at this conference she met Dr Kunath – which then led to his research. We also heard from Professor Perdita Barran from Manchester University whose mass spectrometry unit was an important part of the research.
Alzheimer’s and Smell Dysfunction
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia – something many of us will experience in family members or deal with ourselves in our ageing population. Olfactory dysfunction (mixing up smells) in general and impaired odour identification in particular, have been reported in AD and, importantly, are found to occur at early stages of the disease – so can act as warning signs. Dr Latha Velayudhan, a Senior Clinical Lecturer and Consultant Old Age Psychiatrist working at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscienecs (IoPPN), Kings College London demonstrated how she tests for smell identification dysfunction in people with AD compared to people without and the pattern of smell identification deficits (common smells affected) in individuals with AD.
Professor Keith Wesnes is the Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Exeter Medical School, and alsoruns Wesnes Cognition Ltd, a consultancy on the conduct and evaluation of cognitive testing, which provides its proprietary online cognitive test system, CogTrack to clinical trials worldwide. His talk explored the link between olfaction and cognitive function and how large-scale online studies offer highly efficient and cost-effective platforms for scientifically assessing the short and longer term cognitive and mood benefits of fragrances and essential oils in targeted populations.
As part of the same session, Dr Mark Moss, Head of Department of Psychology, Northumbria University then discussed why he thinks certain smells are ‘hard wired’ into our brain and how that then affects our well-being. Dr Moss’ research revolves around our ability to recognise and distinguish between many different plant aromas, and their practical use for the promotion of health and wellbeing – including stimulation and relaxation. Fascinatingly, his research suggests that ylang ylang slows down our reflexes and may help to relex us, while certain breeds of sage aid alertness and recollection. His study shows the species Sage Officinalis, in particular, was most useful for aiding memory function.
There’s a growing use of ambient scent used in everyday experiences – from scenting public spaces to more dramatic uses in art exhibitions and stage performances. Pollution Pods is a touring installation which, in a series of geodesic domes, accurately recreates the terrible air quality of five major cities – through scent, temperature, ozone and humidity, and cleverly using fragrance to make utterly visceral the effects on our physical and mental health of pollution. The artist behind Pollution Pods, Michael Pinsky, and fragrance specialist Lizzie Ostrom, gave us a into the look (and smell!) of the installation, which caused much coughing, though some seemed very fond of the re-created polluted smells – something Lizzie explained was comforting to many visitors, as they’d grown up surrounded by these smells.
Sharing thoughts on where ambient scent and fragrance in public spaces might be heading next, and what the industry could be doing to take advantage of growing interest from brands and institutions, this, along with the weight of fascinating medical research and hopefully leading to clinical advances and medical help available in the future, really left us with much to ponder the pongs of.
All the experts agreed that, past the age of 65, it has been shown that nicotine patches (!) may significantly slow down some symptoms of Alzheimer’s and, in the case of Parkinson’s it seems, prevent it all together. They also suggested the imbibing of wine to aid longterm memory function (however counter-intuitive that may seem), and so perhaps our senior years may at least be spent indulging in vices, as well as lavishing ourselves with fragrance.
Most of all, the day highlighted once again how the sense of smell is so vital – there’s still so much we don’t yet know about it – truly, as Helen Keller once desribed our ability to smell, it’s ‘the fallen angel of the senses…’
Written by Suzy Nightingale