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Published on: May 19, 2014
by Sarah Barnes for Express:
The sense of smell, or olfaction, can be easy to overlook, no longer as essential to our daily lives as other senses.
But smell can be a fast-track to a person’s past, and losing the ability to pick up scents, which can be an early effect of diseases like Alzheimer’s, can mean losing emotions associated with the smell – with lifetime memories ultimately vanishing forever.
The Perfume Shop and Alzheimer’s Research UK have been working with University College London (UCL) expert Dr Jason Warren to discover how scent and memory are linked. “It has been widely reported that loss of the sense of smell can be an early sign of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s,” Dr Warren told us.
“And while the study of smell processing in Alzheimer’s is still in its infancy, there is some potential for smell to play a part in diagnosing and understanding the diseases that cause dementia.”
Helen Bester’s mum Pam was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 70.Pam’s sense of smell began to diminish in her 40s and had disappeared completely by the time she was 50. However she and her family did not link it to dementia.
“Mum’s sense of smell didn’t just disappear, it faded over time. It became an everyday fact of life. We certainly didn’t put it down to dementia. We didn’t understand it.”
Helen, 45, says her mum, who used to love baking, missed out on simple pleasures like the smell of fresh bread or her favourite perfume, Cinnabar by Estee Lauder, because of the illness.
She thinks it’s important that research is being done into the connection between smell and Alzheimer’s as previously more focus has been on senses such as sight and sound. It’s one of the symptoms that isn’t talked about very much but losing one of your senses is a major thing. You can’t help anyone with dementia.
“That’s the worst thing about having a loved one with it. You need to try and make their life as stress-free and positive as possible but you can’t make them better. We need to be more alert to the warning signs.”
And although Helen says her mum can no longer verbally communicate very well, she believes that if she had her sense of smell it would help bring back memories.
“I’m sure it would. She loved baking and lived on a farm all her adult life so I think smells like cut fields and things would rejig her mind. I’m transported back to our family kitchen when I smell freshly baked bread and vanilla.”
At UCL’s Dementia Research Centre, Dr. Warren is spearheading research into olfaction, memory and dementia. One element of his work harnesses pupilometry – technology that measures physiological brain responses to stimuli by monitoring pupil dilation. Dr. Warren has some early results revealing that significant smells in people’s lives, such as a favourite perfume, have a strong effect on memory centres in the brain, dilating the pupil markedly.
“Pupil dilation like this is of the kind we otherwise see with strong emotional arousal, as occurs in response to pain or loud noises, or indeed, romantic interest. Women in various cultures over the centuries have used compounds like belladonna to enhance their attractiveness and these also exploit pupil dilation,” he says. “We only have very preliminary results from this test, but together with mounting evidence in the field, we believe odours may be much better facilitators of memory and emotions than, for example, pictures and trigger quite different parts of the brain.”
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