Wake up and smell the coral – and climate change?

Caitlin Lawson, a marine biologist at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia, thinks we have a lot to learn about climate change from the smells that coral produce

Having witnessed the annual spawning of coral larvae, which takes place every November on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and describing the spectacle as being ‘like an underwater snowstorm,’ – Lawson set about her task of collecting samples of the gaseous (and rather pongy) scent chemicals they release during this orgy of olfaction. Hakai Magazine reported on her research, explaining that ‘Using advanced analytical chemistry techniques, Lawson and her colleagues are working to identify the spectrum of volatile chemicals the corals produce under different conditions. They hope that measuring these gaseous compounds can give them a way to assess the corals’ health.’

Because when you think about it: why do things smell? Why are we so receptive to these scents, and what might we learn by unravelling this secret, sniffable language?

‘All living things release volatile chemicals,’ explains the report, ‘and many species have adopted specific volatiles as communicative signals. Scientists have long studied their function in terrestrial organisms. A plant’s volatile emissions might indicate to nearby flora that an insect predator has alit, for example, or they might be used to attract another species that feeds on that predator. Detecting these chemicals also has medical uses—think of dogs sniffing out cancer or perhaps even COVID-19.’

 

 

But it’s far harder to capture and analyse smells transmitted under water (think baked beans on toast for tea followed by a nice warm bath…) and so Lawson says she and her team ‘are playing catch-up to the terrestrial world,’ when it comes to unravelling the signals living creatures such as the so-endangered coral reefs are trying to tell us.

‘In a recent study’, the report continues, ‘the scientists described how they detected 87 volatile chemicals being dispersed by two species of coral, Acropora intermedia and Pocillopora damicornis.’ A great number of these volatile smells have already been flagged as important to climate regulation, and Lawson believes ‘this is a potentially huge source that, so far, we have overlooked’ when it comes to mapping (and predicting) what’s happening to our climate.

We already know that odours impact people’s social interactions, and sense of inclusion or exclusion from others; and plants signal attack or distress to one another through smell – that’s basically what essential oils are: invisible scent messages whizzing through the air to warn others of their species or deter insects. So, might coral (and other living creatures) send scented signals not only to ring the alarm bell (or perhaps even help warn surrounding creatures of impending danger), but bang the gong for getting it on? Says Lawson: ‘This is still very much in the baby stage of research. There’s so much to explore…’

By Suzy Nightingale

Bottling the smell of happiness to help treat depression…?

Can you bottle the smell of happiness to treat depression? Scientists are currently reseraching if ‘a spray of happiness’ could be one way to help, according to an article by Alex Whiting in Horizon magazine...

Our bodies produce different scents when we feel happy or afraid. These so-called chemosignals – which are in fact odourless – are believed to trigger happiness or fear in others. It is one of the ways smell impacts people’s social interactions.

‘It’s like an emotional contagion. If I feel fear, my body odour will be smelt by people around me and they may start to feel fear themselves, unconsciously,’ said Enzo Pasquale Scilingo, a professor at the Department of Information Engineering at the University of Pisa, Italy.

Similarly, the smell of happiness can inspire a positive state in other people, says Prof. Scilingo.

‘If we had a spray of happiness … If we can find some odour which can induce a happy state – or a general positive state – I think we can help many, many people,’ Prof. Scilingo said.

He hopes scientists can produce one within a few years. This could be particularly important in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, with cases of depression rising especially among young people.

‘I don’t want to say having this spray will (cure) people, but I think it’s a very beautiful contribution,’ Prof. Scilingo said.

Sweat

He is coordinating a project called POTION which is researching these chemosignals. The researchers use videos to induce fear or happiness in people, and then collect their sweat to analyse which chemical compounds are released with each emotion.

‘The next step is to synthesise the odours and … investigate how they induce emotions in others,’ said Prof. Scilingo.

Eventually, fear odours and people’s responses to them could be used to help psychiatrists understand more about different aspects of phobias and depression. And happiness odours could be used to help in treatment.

‘If we can use the odour of happiness in addition to the usual treatment for phobias or depression, we (could) increase the efficacy of the therapy,’ said Prof. Scilingo.

The POTION researchers are also investigating how odours impact people’s social interactions, and sense of inclusion or exclusion from others.

Previous research has found that a person’s emotional state can influence how they respond to other people – and how others respond to them, Prof. Scilingo says. Someone feeling fear is less likely to approach or trust people, and others are likely to be wary of them. And the reverse is true for happiness – the happier someone is, the more likely they are both to trust others and to attract them, says Prof. Scilingo.

Mammals

In mammals, the sense of smell is uniquely linked to the part of the brain associated with emotions and the creation of memories, says Dr Lisa Roux, researcher at the Interdisciplinary Institute for Neuroscience in France.

Smell is important for recognition between people. A mother can recognise the smell of her child, for example, and this may be an important part of bonding, she said.

‘We humans use our sense of smell more than we think. It’s more unconscious, and a little bit taboo – we are not very comfortable with it – but there is more and more evidence that smell is important in social behaviours,’ said Dr Roux.

The first region of the brain that processes chemosignals – the olfactory bulb – is directly connected to the limbic system, which controls the ability to identify another individual, the formation of memories, and manages emotional responses.

All other senses – taste, hearing, sight and touch – are processed by other regions of the brain before being linked to the limbic system.

This may be because smell has been the most important sense for the survival of species. ‘Chemical signalling is very important, even for bacteria. It’s a very ancient modality, it’s really key,’ Dr Roux said.

‘We humans use our sense of smell more than we think. It’s more unconscious, and a little bit taboo – we are not very comfortable with it – but there is more and more evidence that smell is important in social behaviours.’ – Dr Lisa Roux, Interdisciplinary Institute for Neuroscience, France

Pleasure and pain

The sense of smell is linked to pleasure and depression, possibly because of its unique link to the limbic system.

Up to a third of people with a defective sense of smell experience symptoms of depression, according to a research paper published in 2014.

This may be partly because of their loss of sense of taste, and concerns about personal hygiene and social interactions. But it is also likely that olfactory loss affects the brain’s functioning and in particular its emotional control, authors of the paper said.

‘This might be because the olfactory system is directly linked to the limbic regions – which include the amygdala that is very important for controlling emotions,’ said Dr Roux.

Mice

Dr Roux is principal investigator of sociOlfa, a project looking at how a mouse brain processes chemosignals when it encounters a new individual, and then uses them to create memories.

‘Mice interact a lot by smelling the different body parts of other mice, and the nature of the smell will carry rich information (such as) the social status of the other individual,’ said Dr Roux.

Animals use scent to mark – and detect – territory. In experimental conditions, if two mice fight, the one that wins will mark an area with its scent using urine. The subordinate one will also release a scent but only in one spot.

‘A dominant mouse will have specific molecules to indicate they are dominant ones. And a sick animal will have signs of sickness within this odour mixture,’ she said.

Female mice use scent to select a mate – usually preferring an unfamiliar male possibly because it promotes genetic diversity, says Dr Roux.

‘For me it’s a (form of) language. It’s a way to communicate important information within a social group, important to maintain the hierarchy within the group, and it’s very important for reproduction,’ said Dr Roux.

Studying how mouse brains process chemosignals will help researchers understand general principles of how their brains form social memories, says Dr Roux.

And the results may be relevant in people too. Understanding how the mouse brain processes chemosignals during social interactions and when forming memories of an individual could help scientists identify what happens when these functions go wrong – for example, in mouse models of autism.

Eventually this could also help scientists understand what happens in people whose ability to recognise others is impaired – for example those with Alzheimer’s – or those who have difficulties with social interactions caused by autism.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.’

This post Bottling the smell of happiness to help treat depression was originally published on Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission.

Sensehacking – professor Charles Spence reveals ‘How to Use the Power of Your Senses’

Sensehacking is the just-published book by professor Charles Spence, and the tantalising subtitle – ‘How to Use the Power of Your Senses for Happier, Healthier Living’ – suggests we can all make use of these hidden super-powers…

We’re adding SO many great books to our Fragrant Reads section, lately (and might have to add more bookshelves soon!) and this latest is particularly exciting. ‘How can the furniture in your home affect your well-being? What colour clothing will help you play sport better? And what simple trick will calm you after a tense day at work?’ These are the questions posed (and answered) by Oxford professor Charles Spence – an expert on the senses who we’ve seen speak at IFRA Fragrance Forums over the years, and whose research has often sparked or informed many fragrant features of our own. As head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory, Spence focuses on how our senses often overlap – sometimes very confusingly – and this book aims to demonstrate how ‘…our senses change how we think and feel, and how by ‘hacking’ them we can reduce stress, become more productive and be happier.’

Exploring how our senses are constantly stimulated – in nature, while in the workplace, at home or while we play – Spence splices his cutting-edge scientific research with practical examples of how we can use this knowledge to our benefit. For example, now we’ve all been constrained due to the global pandemic, Spence drives home the point of how beneficial going out for a walk can be, for our mental health perhaps even more than physically. In the Garden chapter, he cites how even ‘Two thousand years ago, Taoists in the Far East were already advocating in print the health benefits of gardening and greenhouses.’ And recent studies have revealed those who regularly spend time in quiet contemplation on a woodland walk – a practice known in Japan as shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’ – ‘…exhibit lower stress levels as well as an enhanced immune response.’

 

Sensehacking forest bathing walking nature woodland smell photo by FreePik

 

There’s some fascinating sections on how we’re ‘led by the nose’, too. Ask most people about how they think large corporations try to entice us with smell and many will say something about supermarkets and the ‘fake’ but tempting waft of freshly baked bread. Spence reveals that no research is available on this subject – ‘It’s not that the research hasn’t been done, you understand, for it most certainly has. It is just that the supermarkets have chosen not to share their findings.’ But at least that baked bread smell is ‘unlikely to be artificial’ he explains, because ‘the delectable smell of freshly baked bread is one of the aromas that, at least until very recently, chemists struggled to imitate synthetically.’

From the tricks of ‘Subliminal seduction’ and ‘Multisensory shopping online’, the way are senses are appealed to and why we find certain things/people/experiences more appealing than others, to what the future holds for ways we can hack our senses; it’s certainly a thrilling read. And will provide you many ready answers to the inevitable questions we fragrance-lovers always get: ‘Why are you so obsessed with perfume? Doesn’t it just smell nice, and that’s it?’ Well, we’ve always known there’s far more to it than that, and now you can recommend this book for any olfactory nay-sayers you might meet…

 

Sensehacking: How to Use the Power of Your Senses for Happier, Healthier Living by Charles Spence (Viking Books)
Buy it at WHSmith

 

By Suzy Nightingale

This fragrance is the bee’s knees – literally!

Scientists have discovered that certain types of bees actually create their own ‘perfumes’ in order to attract a mate. And what’s more, a niche brand has just launched a Bee fragrance that’s already creating a buzz…

A new article in Science Daily reveals that scientists at the University of California have discovered male orchid bees don’t sipmply flit among the flowers collecting pollen to make honey back at the hive – they’re also using their wings ‘…to disperse a bouquet of perfumes into the air.’ And their studies have concluded that ‘the aromatic efforts are all for the sake of attracting a mate.’

Associate Professor Santiago Ramirez, UC Davis Department of Evolution and Ecology, explained that while they already knew many animals produce pheremones, the unique factor for the orchid bee is that ‘the majority of their pheromones are actually collected from plants and other sources like fungi.’ Science Daily suggests that ‘Orchid bees are master perfumers,’ and goes on to explain that the scientists reserach suggests that ‘the perfumes males concoct are unique to their specific species’.

Ramirez,and recent Ph.D. graduate student Philipp Brand, from the Population Biology Graduate Group, have been studying the mating habits of orchid bees for some years, in the course of their studies, ‘unraveling the complex chemicals responsible for successful procreation.’ What they didn’t expext to find, though, was a brand new discovery that possibly explains the evolutionary divergence of bee species: environmental perfumes (and we’re not talking ‘clean’ or ‘green’ beauty claims here, folks!)

In the study, which was first published in Nature Communications, Brand, Ramirez and their colleagues set out their case to suggest that the evolution of sexual signaling in orchid bees can directly be linked to ‘a gene that’s been shaped by each species’ perfume preferences.’

Brand commented that, ‘Our study supports the hypothesis that in the orchid bee perfume communication system, the male perfume chemistry and the female preference for the perfume chemistry can simultaneously evolve via changes in a single receptor gene.’ And this could explain why a single species split into two distinct species that we knew were linked, but had no idea why they had diverged. Ah yes, the power of that scent sillage is strong, it seems, even for bees. But how did one bee’s perfume-making prowess suddenly woo more of the female bees to his partiular, er, honeypot?

 

Green Orchid Bee

 

Explains Ramirez: ‘Imagine you have an ancestral species that uses certain compounds to communicate with each other,” said Ramirez. “If you have a chemical communication channel and then that chemical communication channel splits into two separate channels, then you have the opportunity for the formation of two separate species.’

Do make time to read the full article in Science Daily – it’s a fascingating read, and yet another notch in our understanding of the power of smell. But let’s not only focus on fragrances that makes bees feel like getting busy (buzzy?) with it; we perfume-loving humans have a brand new sweet-smelling scent to explore that’s perfectly themed – and although not inspired by the reasearch, as far as we know, happens to be perfectly timed, too. The Canadian-based niche house of Zoologist have just launched the latest in their animal-centric scents: behold Bee

Perfumer Cristiano Canali has created a perfume that showcases luxurious amounts of labdanum, dollops of honey, a leathery orange blossom dusted with powdery mimosa, delciously rounded by nutty tonka and heady heliotrope.

Zoologist Bee, £195 for 65ml extrait de parfum (1ml samples £3)
Try it at Bloom Perfumery

So which honey-based fragrances are likely to get you buzzing? Read our page all about the history and use of honey as a fragrant ingredient, and discover other perfumes to try, for the scent perfumer Christine Nagel describes as ‘half devil, half angel…’

Written by Suzy Nightingale

Leonardo da Vinci’s secret scented formula

Art experts use x-rays and scientific tests to help determine the authenticity of a masterpiece painting, but soon they could well be using their noses, too…

While researching a painting called Donna Nuda – believed to be by a contemporary follower of Leonardo da Vinci rather than the artist himself, but conducted under his close supervision – experts were greeted with a unique smell of the materials used within the painting, described as ‘…the fresh smell of a forest after the rain.’

The technique used is, necessarily, non-invasive, and Martin Kemp – a leading authority on da Vinci, based at Trinity College, Oxford, has excitedly commented that this method of scented investigation, when used as a prototype to test the authenticity of other paitings, could hold enormous potential for the future of art attribution.

Gleb Zilberstein and his co-authors had previously used the technique to discover traces of morphine on the manuscript of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, The Master and Margarita, as well as analysing Anthony Chekhov’s blood-stained shirt, and finding evidence of tuberculosis. The team will publish their full findings in the Journal of Proteomics, but for those of us not quite up to the technical language, a more basic explanation of the way it works is this:

Acetate film embedded with charged particles is placed on sections of the painting. The film is analysed by gas and liquid spectrometry and chromatography – run through a computer which can separate and identify every component the object is composed of, allowing researchers to pick out particular areas of interest and actually smell them, individually.

The same technology is used to analyse traces of vintage fragrances, or to capture the smell of a thunderstorm, for example, and allow a perfumer to recreate it. But this is the first time it’s been used to analyse and identify the materials of a painting. This way, the tem discovered a unique mixture of egg yolk, linseed and rosemary oil had been used by Leonardo’s Protégé, and as they were learning his exact techniques, they would have used the same paint mixtures – perhaps even mixed by the hand of da Vinci himself.

Researchers concluded that rosemary oil had been used in some sections to ‘enhance the sense of depth’ by blurring a background – just like the Portrait mode on a modern iPhone – and that they hope to use the technology to create a ‘decay curve’, so as to further help pinpoint the date of a painting by studying the smell and decomposition of organic materials.

Zilberstein commented that it was a ‘magical moment’ to smell odours that had been trapped beneath the surface of the painting for over 400 years, and explained that now, ‘for the first time the deciphering of the recipes used by Leonardo was possible…’

By Suzy Nightingale

IFRA Fragrance Forum 2018 – we were there…

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.

 

Joy and Les Milne

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.

Pollution Pods

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

Givaudan bring together fragrance, flavour & body language…

What’s your body language saying about the fragrance you wear…?

Givaudan‘s Fine Fragrance perfumers have created a new ‘Delight’ collection in collaboration with flavourists – the first fragrance house to specifically use body language research in order to better understand the pleasure we feel when wearing perfume.

The idea began when Givaudan encouraged a close collaboration between their flavourists and perfumers in Paris, New York, São Paulo, Dubai and Singapore. Two arms of the industry who never usually work together, the project also required the input of a non-verbal communications specialist. And their goal?

‘Imagine your favourite flavour and the great feeling you get when you taste it: a powerful physical and emotional reaction that makes you crave more. Now imagine if we could bring that same level of desirability and moreishness to fragrances… That’s exactly what Givaudan has been doing as part of a new global initiative called Project Delight.’

Intriguing, right? There’s a definite correlation between that heady rush of pleasure we’re consumed with when smelling a scent we love – we might describe it as ‘delicious’, ‘moreish’, or even ‘addictive.’ With no true language of its own, we liken fragrance to food and taste all the time – and of course many of the same ingredients are used across flavour and fragrance – so it completely makes sense that Givaudan are focusing on studying the two together.

As a starting point, they analysed ‘…those moments where lip-smackingly good flavours collide with equally delicious aromas,’ composing evocative fragrance bases such as the candyfloss memories of a fun fair, the perfect buttered croissant we associate with a Parisian breakfast, the smoky-creamy mingling of a Brooklyn brunch and the glittering fizz of night out with cocktails. And Givaudan report ‘the result is a revolutionary and exclusive set of bases for perfumers to work with… scents that are both aromatic… and appetising.’

Senior Flavourist for Givaudan, Arnaud, explained the exciting thing for him was that, ‘as a flavourist, I work in a realistic, true to life way, while a perfumer works in the world of abstract and interpretation. In our collaboration on Project Delight, we wanted to mix these two strengths and add a realistic touch to our fragrance palette.’

As part of their research, Givaudan carried out a groundbreaking consumer study, assessing non-verbal responses (such as salivation, surprise or swallowing) to different fragrances. The first time this type of methodology has been used in fragrance development, the research enabled their perfumers to develop a new range of special ‘Delight’ fragrance bases which, rather excitingly, further tests went on to reveal ‘…triggered higher levels of pleasure and craving than other bases currently available.’

In the future, will we be craving certain scents with the same hunger we feel for food? Well according to Givaudan, you’d better tuck in your napkin and get ready for the pleasure in a whole new way, because ‘we have begun a voyage of discovery and will continue to explore further, opening up new possibilities for perfumers to entice consumers with new fragrances that spark pure pleasure…’

Written by Suzy Nightingale