Can Fragrance Improve Our Cognition by 200%?

Memory lapses and cognitive decline often cast a disheartening shadow over the golden years. For adults over the age of 60, a sense of fading mental sharpness can transform simple daily tasks into insurmountable challenges. But what if a simple and enjoyable remedy exists—one that harnesses the power of our senses?

Cognitive Decline in Older Age: A Silent Reality

Aging comes with wisdom, experience, and for many, a gradual decrease in cognitive abilities. Everyday tasks like remembering names, following conversations, and making decisions can become more difficult. Though widely accepted as a natural part of aging, cognitive decline significantly impacts the quality of life, not just for the individual but also for their families and caregivers. Medications and therapies are available, but these treatments often come with side effects and limitations.

Smell and Memory: An Underestimated Connection

senior man smelling

Scientific research has long suggested that our sense of smell, or olfactory capacity, is closely linked to our cognitive abilities. The loss of the ability to smell can often be a harbinger of neurological and psychiatric diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and even schizophrenia. Recently, smell loss due to COVID-19 has also been associated with subsequent cognitive decline. Unlike eyesight and hearing, for which interventions like glasses and hearing aids exist, there's been a dearth of solutions for the loss of olfactory function—until now.

The Study

In an effort to make olfactory stimulation a practical and effective method for cognitive enhancement, researchers at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) designed a study to check just what the influence of changing fragrances may have on cognitive functions. Conducted through the UCI Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory, the study involved men and women aged 60 to 85 without memory impairment. A key consideration was to simplify the application of scents, particularly because earlier methods, which involved opening and sniffing multiple bottles of odors, were impractical for older adults, especially those already experiencing cognitive issues.

oil diffuser

To accomplish this, each participant was provided with a diffuser and 7 cartridges of different natural oils. The enriched group received full-strength cartridges, while the control group was given diluted versions. Each night, participants inserted a different cartridge into their diffuser, which activated for two hours as they slept. This approach not only streamlined the process but also integrated it seamlessly into the participants' daily routines, eliminating the need for any conscious effort during waking hours.

Results and future applications

The results were nothing short of astonishing. The enriched group displayed a staggering 226% increase in cognitive performance compared to the control group, as gauged by a common word list test used for evaluating memory. Additionally, brain imaging indicated better integrity in the left uncinate fasciculus - a crucial pathway connecting regions responsible for memory and decision-making. Participants also reported an improvement in sleep quality.

Notably, the study confirmed the long-standing scientific belief that the olfactory sense is directly connected to the brain’s memory circuits. With other senses like vision and hearing, the sensory data (what we see and what we hear) first has to pass through a region called the thalamus in our brain, before reaching the brain's memory circuits. Think of it like a way station where all our other senses have to stop and go through analysis, while our sense of smell bypasses this way station. It doesn't stop at the thalamus at all, and so provides us with a more direct and powerful link to our memory.

olfactory sense

What Does This Mean for You?

The most compelling aspect of this study is its practical application. A product based on the study is expected to come to market soon, giving adults a simple, non-invasive way to potentially deter cognitive decline and improve memory. Though the researchers aim to extend their study to those with diagnosed cognitive loss, the current results are promising for adults looking for an uncomplicated, at-home method to boost their cognitive health.

In summary, if you've noticed your memory isn't what it used to be, this could be an olfactory opportunity you won't want to forget about. The study's findings not only shine a light on the untapped power of our sense of smell but also offer a path to enhancing cognitive function in older adults. While further testing is very much needed to better understand how exactly this works, we would say that adding a few different fragrances to the room while you sleep may be beneficial!

H/T: Scitechdaily.com

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