Feb 24, 2019

‘Sniff test’: Training the brain through the nose

 

A team from Melbourne University is developing a study to train people to improve their smelling abilities, in the hope that the training may also improve their thinking skills.

A group from the University’s Academic Unit for the Psychiatry of Old Age are developing an  ‘olfactory cognitive training study’ titled ‘Neuropsychological and Olfactory Skills Enhancement’ – or more catchily, the ‘NOSE’ study.

“We aim to ‘train the brain through the nose’,” said Dr Anna Wolf, Postdoctoral Fellow and Clinical Psychologist at the Academic Unit for Psychiatry of Old Age, The University of Melbourne.

‘Olfactory training’ may improve cognitive abilities

Working with people who have some degree of thinking and memory decline, the researchers hope to train participants to improve their ability to identify, discriminate, detect, and remember, a range of odours.

The hope is that this ‘olfactory training’ will also improve attention, thinking, and memory performance.

The study will work with participants one-on-one over a period of 12 weeks.  

“We’ll introduce them to various odours: some pleasant, some unpleasant; odours from a range of different categories such as flowery, fruity, aromatic or resinous odours, for example rose, lemon, eucalyptus, cloves,” said Dr Wolf.

“Whilst smelling the various odours, we’ll train participants to utilize various established cognitive training techniques, such as memory and learning strategies,” she said.

“Existing, well established cognitive training approaches with people exhibiting some memory and thinking deficits generally train participants utilizing visual or auditory stimuli. To date, formal cognitive training has not been attempted using odours,” said Dr Wolf.

The link between dementia and the ability to smell

Dr Wolf said there is a link between “poor smell ability” and neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia.  

“Poor odour identification, in the absence of a known medical cause, is a predictor of cognitive decline,” she said.

A recent study found that individuals with poor smell identification were twice as likely to develop dementia in five years than those with no significant olfactory impairment, Dr Wolf said.

“The link between being unable to identify smells and dementia is because our brain is central to our ability to smell. Whilst cells in our nose detect the molecules that make up an item’s odour, various parts of the brain help us process the information based on our stored knowledge about the odour.  

“If those parts of the brain aren’t working properly, or if there is disruption in the connections between these parts of the brain, as is the case in dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases associated with age, both the ability to smell and other cognitive deficits can occur,” she said.

The researchers are looking for people to take part in the study

The study aims to “train the brain through the nose”, Dr Wolf said.  

“Specifically, we not only aim to improve older adults’ ability to identify, discriminate, detect and remember a range of odours, we also aim increase in attention, thinking and memory performance.”

Researchers are looking for people over the age of 55 and with a degree of cognitive decline.

If you are interested in being a participant in the research, you can email NOSE-study@unimelb.edu.au.

 

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