Could Scents Crack the Depression Code?

by Denis Storey
February 14, 2024 at 12:40 PM UTC

University of Pittsburgh researchers found that familiar scents could aid in memory recall for individuals with depression, potentially aiding in their recovery. The study, published in JAMA Network Open and led by Dr. Kymberly Young, focused on the amygdala, the brain’s “reptilian” region associated with memory and emotion regulation. Using a cost-effective method, the researchers tested the effectiveness of scents in triggering memories among depressed individuals, finding that smells were more potent cues than words. Results indicated that scent-induced memories were clearer and more effective in triggering positive events, suggesting potential therapeutic applications for improving memory and aiding in the treatment of depression.

Clinical relevance: University of Pittsburgh researchers found that familiar scents could aid in memory recall for individuals with depression, potentially aiding in their recovery.

  • The study, published in JAMA Network Open and led by Dr. Kymberly Young, focused on the amygdala, the brain’s “reptilian” region associated with memory and emotion regulation.
  • Using a cost-effective method, the researchers tested the effectiveness of scents in triggering memories among depressed individuals, finding that smells were more potent cues than words.
  • Results indicated that scent-induced memories were clearer and more effective in triggering positive events, suggesting potential therapeutic applications for improving memory and aiding in the treatment of depression.

Maybe Nirvana was on to something. University of Pittsburgh researchers have announced that they’ve discovered that familiar scents could assist those with depression to “recall specific autobiographical memories and potentially assist in their recovery.”

The study, conducted by University of Pittsburgh Medical Center scientists, appeared in JAMA Network Open.

Probing the Lizard Brain for Answers

Senior study author Dr. Kymberly Young, a neuroscience researcher who’s written about autobiographical memories before, had been convinced for years that the key to helping patients with memory recall might lie in the amygdala. The amygdala, she knew, is the “reptilian” part of the brain that regulates the fight-or-flight response. This almond-shaped formation, which rests underneath the uncus, also manages one’s attention and focus.

Young also recalled previous research that showed that people suffering from depression struggle with tapping into autobiographical memories. Non-depressive individuals respond to scents, which trigger memories more vividly. Young theorized that it was probably because those individuals rely directly on the amygdala through nerve connections tied to the olfactory nerves.

“It was surprising to me that nobody thought to look at memory recall in depressed individuals using scent cues before,” Young, a Pitt associate professor of psychiatry said in a press release.

But How Do You Measure Scents?

Finally, Young and her team of researchers, resolved to test whether triggering the amygdala could help depressed patients recall memories more effectively. But instead of relying on expensive brain scans, she forged ahead with a lower-budget approach.

As a result, Young showed nearly three dozen study participants a set of opaque glass vials. Each container held a solution that featured a strong but familiar scent. The smells ran the gamut, from fresh oranges to ground coffee to shoe polish. One even held the overpowering smell anyone would recognize, Vicks VapoRub.

Young presented the vials, and had the subjects smell them while asking the subjects to tap into a particular memory.

Surprising Results

Young’s study revealed – to her surprise – that “scents are more effective than words at cueing up a memory of a specific event and could even be used in the clinical setting to help depressed individuals get out of negative thought cycles and rewire thought patterns, aiding faster and smoother healing.”

The odor-induced memories also seemed to be more clear and “real.” Young added that the smells appeared more effective at triggering positive events, even without a prompt.

“If we improve memory, we can improve problem-solving, emotion regulation, and other functional problems that depressed individuals often experience,” Young said. 

University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine funded the research.

Further Reading

Biological Basis to Personality Disorders

Guideline Concordance in Major Depressive Disorder

Clinical Outcomes of IV Ketamine for Depression

Severity of Antipsychotic-Induced Cervical Dystonia Assessed by the Algorithm-Based Rating System

Rater consensus data were compared with deviation angle data using AI-based deviation angle measurement technology. With the range of tilt angles found in the study, the authors propose a global standard for evaluating abnormal deviation severity in cervical dystonia for future d...

Toshiya Inada and others

Unlocking Therapeutic Potential: The Role of Theta Burst Stimulation in Multiple Sclerosis Management

Theta burst stimulation interventions may hold promise in addressing specific multiple sclerosis symptoms, notably fatigue and spasticity.

David F. Lo and others