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New Research Shows How Scent Is Related To Memory, Cognition & Mental Health

Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Writer By Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Writer
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, and a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.
woman smelling flower

We all have certain scents that remind us of a loved one, take us back to childhood, or transport us to a favorite place. Researchers have long suspected a direct link between our sense of smell and memory, and a new study shines new light on this connection.

In a new paper by Northwestern Medicine, published in the journal Progress of Neurobiology, researchers described for the first time what actually happens in the body when a smell spurs a memory—and unpacked what this reaction means for our mental health.

How memory and scent are connected.

Based on their research, the team says our sense of smell, or olfaction, is the sense most strongly connected with the hippocampus (more so than sight, touch, hearing, etc.). And of course, the hippocampus plays a large role in our memory.

As lead investigator and assistant professor of neurobiology Christina Zelano, Ph.D., explains in a news release, somewhere along our evolutionary path, the human neocortex reorganized, rerouting the connections between the hippocampus and our senses. But their data, she says, "suggests olfaction did not undergo this rerouting and instead retained direct access to the hippocampus."


What does that mean for mental health?

Their research couldn't be more timely, with thousands of people around the globe experiencing loss of smell due to COVID-19—and the subsequent side effects.

As Zelano notes, "While our study doesn't address COVID smell loss directly, it does speak to an important aspect of why olfaction is important to our lives: Smells are a profound part of memory, and odors connect us to especially important memories in our lives, often connected to loved ones."

And while it may seem like a less significant sense than perhaps sight, or hearing, she stresses that losing smell still has "profound negative effects on quality of life" and can be strongly associated with depression and poor quality of life.

How this research can be applied.

Now, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the team hopes their research can help provide treatment for the loss of olfaction going forward.

As study author Guangyu Zhou, Ph.D., says, "There is an urgent need to better understand the olfactory system in order to better understand the reason for COVID-related smell loss, diagnose the severity of the loss, and to develop treatments." Watch this space.

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