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The Nose Knows – Nightly Smells Could Boost Your Memory

A woman exploring the effect of scents on the brain

It’s not uncommon to come across a smell that takes you back down memory lane. It might be the scent of someone’s perfume or cologne. It might be the aroma from a nearby restaurant. It might even be a combination of smells that reminds you of a specific time and place from your past. The reason for these phenomena relates to the close relationship between our olfactory bulb (smell center) and our memory circuits. These two parts of our brain are tightly coupled, which is why some researchers are exploring aromatherapy for memory enhancement. As it turns out, the effect of scents on the brain seems to be much more powerful than previously believed.

a woman digging the effect of scents on the brain
The effect of scents on the brain has been studied, and the results show smells can boost memory.

(Want to improve your memory? Eat a mole rat… or read this Bold story.)

Several studies including those involving animals and humans now show the significant effect of scents on the brain. When administered over several months, structured smell sessions can enhance both learning and memory. This is true for healthy as well as unhealth populations, according to a collection of research. Though many of the studies have a small number of participants, they suggest that aromatherapy for memory has strong support. And this could have significant implications for modern society, which has come to prefer odorless environments. It might just be that stimulating your sense of smell is as important as stimulating your cognition. And the best part is that you can do this while sleeping with minimal effort.

Recent Studies on Aromatherapy for Memory

For several years, scientists have known that there are significant effects of scents on the brain. New insights and improvements in healthcare have led to these discoveries. Animal research dating back over a decade suggested exposure to various smells improves animal’s thinking. But only recently has this same principle been applied to human research. One study a few years back performed by Korean scientists involved a group of older adults with dementia. In this study, participants received intensive smell therapy twice daily for two months. When they were then reassessed, those receiving actual treatment as opposed to placebo improved. Specifically, both their capacities for memory and attention were significantly better.

More recently, another study out of the University of Irvine in California was published involving aromatherapy for memory. The difference in this study involved the fact that participants only received treatments while sleeping. Of the 43 people in the study, half were exposed to two hours of different smells nightly for six months. A different smell was used each night of the week and including scents like rose, orange, eucalyptus, and others. All individuals were also healthy men and women between the ages of 60 and 85 years. And the effects of scents on the brain were measured by formal neuropsychological testing and functional MRI.

some rose petals on a chemical compound
Want to improve your memory? Your nose knows how.

As it turned out, the participants who received actual aromatherapy for memory outperformed the others tremendously. A 226% improvement was seen memory and learning as gauged by the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test. In addition, functional MRI demonstrated increased activity in the left uncinate fasciculus of the brain. This area has been associated with learning and with interconnections to our memory circuits. Though the group was small in number, the results are still impressive. And because smells administered at night showed positive effects of scents on the brain, its real-world application is more practical. Such therapies would also not only be beneficial as a treatment for memory loss and dementia but as a preventative intervention as well.

The Science Behind the Smells

a scientist studying aromatherapy for memory
Aromatherapy for memory? According to science, it’s a real thing!

In order to appreciate the effects of scents on the brain, some basic neuroscience is needed. The sensors of smell, located within the lining of one’s nose and posterior throat, send inputs to our forebrains. This is where the olfactory bulb lies. From here, information is then directly received by our limbic areas of the brain. It is these areas that are responsible for memories and for emotional reactions to these memories. In fact, you may not realize this, but smells are recorded in our memories along with our emotions. This is why when we smell a familiar scent, it can reproduce a certain feeling. It is this tight connection, however, between smell, emotion, and memory that helps explain the research. Smells are even believed to help promote neuroplasticity and help rewire our brains in a positive way. This is why aromatherapy for memory has potential.

(Preventing dementia through exercise is a real thing–read all about it in this Bold story.)

The other scientific concepts relevant to the research relates to enrichment stimulation. It has been recognized for some time that cognitive stimulation is helpful in delaying or preventing dementia. This can even delay the progression of memory and learning loss in those with these diseases. In a similar way, exposing ourselves to various scents also falls into this category of enrichment stimuli. Through aromatherapy for memory, we’re stimulating our sense of smell along with our memory circuits. Based on the studies to date, the effect of scents on the brain through this stimulation appears to be beneficial. This is worth noting since over 70 different neurological disorders are linked to a loss of smell. This includes COVID-19, which left many with some degree of smell impairment.

Takeaways from the Research

While this research is highly promising, it must be recognized that the number of those tested were small. As such, additional studies will need to be performed to validate the findings. In the meantime, however, the risks of embracing aromatherapy for memory is certainly low. Lighting a candle or scented oils while you sleep is an easy endeavor for most of us. And in a world that prefers odorless to odors, this may be precisely the type of stimulation we need. While our sense of smell does decline with age, it can also be enhanced through regular exposure. Based on the apparent beneficial effects of scents on the brain, these types of activities seem worth our while.

 

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