The Boston Globe
May 15, 2001
Book Provides the Missing Sense
By Chet Raymo
Diane Ackerman begins her “A Natural History of the Senses” with this bold assertion: “Nothing is more memorable than a smell.”
Well, thanks, Diane.
You see, I have no sense of smell. My affliction is called anosmia by scientists, but it is rare enough not to have a common name. Ackerman suggests “smumb” as an appropriate moniker (“There goes Chet. He’s smumb.”). No thanks, I’ll stick with anosmia. Some folks can’t smell because of an accidental bump to the head, or allergies or infection. I was born this way. Nary a scent has excited my brain since the day I was born, at least none I remember. A doctor once suggested that I might have suffered a trauma to the frontal lobe of my brain at birth, but he was just guessing. To tell the truth, I haven’t a clue why my nose doesn’t work.
I’m missing what Ackerman calls “all of the heady succulence of life.” Many a time I’ve downed a dark mug of hot water, having forgotten to put in the instant coffee. I can’t tell mashed carrots from mashed potatoes. The only taste sensations I have are those that reside on the tongue—sweet, sour, salty, bitter.
We learned in school that taste buds for each taste sensation were located in different places on the tongue: Sweet and salty at the front, sour at the sides, bitter at the back. But this is wrong, according to taste researchers David Smith and Robert Margolskee, writing in the March issue of Scientific American.
Apparently, our taste buds—tiny onion-shaped receptors embedded in the tongue—are multipurpose. Each bud can deliver multiple sensations to the brain. The buds are complex chemical processors capable of sorting out an assortment of molecular stimuli.
For example, the salty pleasure I derive from anchovies or feta cheese begins with sodium chloride molecules, NaCl, approaching a taste cell. The atoms in the molecules disassociate, and sodium ions enter the cell through special channels on its surface. The accumulation of sodium ions in the cell enables calcium ions to enter, too. This prompts the release of chemical signals called neurotransmitters that trigger adjacent nerve cells. A message zips to the brain. Yum, I’ll have more anchovies, please.
The sense of smell is rather different. The 100 million olfactory receptors in the nose are bare nerve endings; no fancy buds to do complex biochemistry. As the chemist, P. W. Atkins, said, “In essence, the brain is exposed in the nose.” Smell is raw and primitive, a link to our premammalian past.
The triggering mechanism for smell is lock-and-key. Molecules of a certain shape fit nooks and crannies on nerve-cell proteins, causing the nerve to send messages down the line—musk, violet, pine, bacon. Each day our lungs pump hundreds of cubic feet of air across the olfactory sites in our noses, and dozens of different scents, alone or in combination, are detected.
All sensation is chemical. Molecules are the messengers that connect the world “out there” to the imaginary worlds we build in our heads. What a miracle it is, when you think about it. Our wonderfully rich interior lives, our dreams, memories, loves and lusts are mediated by chemistry. The “heady succulence of life” is molecules.
And I’m apparently missing a lot of it. Somewhere along the biochemical pathways that link the nerve endings in my nose to my brain, there’s a hitch.
Several companies now offer artificial noses, handheld electronic devices that respond with electronic or optical signals when certain olfactory stimulants are detected. An electronic nose might keep me from drinking hot water rather than coffee, or, more importantly, remind me that the gas stove in on without a light, but it will never do much for my inner life. For that I have to rely on art.
There’s a gorgeously sensuous novel by Patrick Suskind called “Perfume” that is about as close as I have ever gotten to imagining smell. It is about a man born without a personal scent but with an unnaturally acute sense of smell, who apprentices himself to a perfumer in 18th-century France and masters the craft of distilling aromas.
Orange, lime, clove, musk, jasmine, bergamot, attar of roses, ambergris, civet, sandalwood: Of these and a thousand other scents, our hero mixes aromas “capable of creating a whole world, a magical, rich world, and in an instant you forgot all the loathsomeness around you and felt so rich, so at ease, so free, so fine...”
His quest for the ultimate scent that will give him irresistible power over others leads him at last to murder—and to an unspeakably horrible end. Suskind’s talent is to portray the outer and inner worlds of smell in words so vivid that it almost lets me feel those lock-and-key molecules tickling my nose.
The Gazette (Montreal)
August 8, 2001
Odourless world of anosmia
By Jane Davenport
Lisa Vatch always knew something was missing from the realms of sensory data that shaped her world—but it wasn’t until a couple of Grade 11 classmates let off a stink bomb in her high-school hallway that she realized what it was.
“Everyone scattered and I just kept getting books out of my locker,” Vatch, now 22 and fresh from her first year of law school at the University of Toronto, remembered. “I got home and said to my parents, ‘Something’s wrong.’”
Before long, a magnetic-resonance-imaging scan at the Montreal Children’s Hospital revealed the problem. The olfactory nerves in Vatch’s brain are either non-existent, or so under-developed that they are undetectable, making her one of millions of North Americans who suffer anosmia—the inability to smell.
This summer, the Westmount resident has made it her mission to try to broaden awareness of what she says is a little-known and often misunderstood condition.
On the steps of the sports complex of Marianopolis College—the venue of a day camp for which Vatch is working as business manager this summer—dozens of scents waft through the air.
Warm grass, a chlorinated pool, kids with wet hair and a musty concrete arch - even with your eyes closed, you know they’re there. But if Vatch plugged her ears and closed her eyes, she wouldn’t.
“I figure maybe it’s like taste—maybe air goes into your nose and you think ... I don’t know. I don’t even have the words to describe it,” she said.
“There are no smells in my world—good or bad.”
Children with congenital anosmia often go undiagnosed because they can’t vocalize what is wrong with them, Vatch said.
Growing up, she obediently smelled scratch-and-sniff stickers, assuming that either she had a blocked nose, or that she was smelling the same thing as everyone else, she said.
The same went for taste: “It never occurred to me I wasn’t tasting normally.”
Vatch’s taste buds are normal—she can taste the sweetness of chocolate, but what she doesn’t experience as a result of anosmia is the subtlety of flavour, such as the difference between vanilla and hazelnut coffee, she said.
Anosmia is not as debilitating as blindness or deafness—but the loss of smell as a result of an accident or side-effect of another condition can be devastating to people who previously had it, Vatch said.
A message she frequently receives from people who post to her recently constructed Web site is, “I’m so glad I’m not alone,” she added.
Anosmia affects as many as 2 per cent of the U.S. population, the University of California, San Diego’s Web site says. Loss of smell is frequently attributable to inflammatory nasal disease, upper-respiratory-tract infection or head trauma, and is associated with such diseases as Alzheimer’s, it adds.
Statistics on anosmia in Canada appear to be scarce—one reason Vatch decided this summer to set up a Web site offering information, links and support to people with the condition.
Since establishing the site, she has developed a mailing list of 100 people from Britain, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, she said.
She hopes her Web site will begin to raise awareness of the condition, and is preparing to apply for charitable status for the recently incorporated Anosmia Foundation of Canada so she can raise funds with that goal in mind.
If more people know about anosmia, she reasons, more might be motivated to research the condition - which in some cases is reversible - or try to develop solutions for people living without a sense of smell.
One suggestion she has floated on her site is the equivalent of seeing-eye dogs for anosmic people.
But first she would like to see the world become more sensitized to anosmia.
“It’s not politically correct to make fun of blindness or deafness, but when it’s smell that’s missing—you would never say to a blind person, ‘Can you see that? Or that? Not even that?’” she said.
Both congenital and non-congenital anosmic people face challenges as a result of the condition. Smell is a first line of defense against fires, some types of car malfunction and spoiled foods, for example. The University of California, San Diego’s Web site cautions anosmic people to install smoke detectors in the room where they sleep, and stick to electric stoves where possible.
Sufferers might also be disinterested in eating because of the condition’s impact on taste, the site states.
Some anosmic people who contact Vatch through her Web site have criticized the idea of terming anosmia a disability, arguing that they live normal productive lives with the condition—and Vatch is the first to admit the inability to smell hasn’t stopped her living a happy life or achieving her goals.
“It still is something that causes problems in your daily life,” she said. “It’s the little things you don’t think about—a baby’s diaper needing to be changed. If you didn’t have your sense of smell for a day, you would know something was missing.”
August 18, 2001
Love is in the air
By Jon Copley
FORGET love horoscopes. If you want to know what the future holds for you and a partner, sniff yourselves with an “e-nose.”
Researchers in Germany have developed an electronic nose that can detect the smells that mice use to choose mates with compatible genes. The device should make it easier to test the controversial idea that people also rely on smells, and that having the wrong ones may sometimes sow the seeds of divorce. Magazine Rodents sniff their suitors to see whether they have the same major histocompatibility complex genes as their own. MHC genes code for proteins in the immune system, and the more diverse they are, the better your chances of coping with new infections. So rats and mice, at least, follow their noses and choose mates with different MHC genes, to endow their offspring with a varied portfolio.
Until now, researchers have not been able to directly measure differences in smells associated with MHC genes. They have relied on rodents to do this for them in behavioural experiments. But Hans-Georg Rammensee and his colleagues at the University of Tuebingen have built an electronic nose that does the job. The e-nose has two components. The first contains a series of eight tiny quartz crystals coated with different polymers. Odour molecules stick to particular coatings, and just a few molecules will change the frequency at which the crystal vibrates. The second part uses a series of semiconducting metal-oxide gas sensors. Gases react with oxygen on the sensor surfaces and change their conductivity. Both components are hooked up to a computer that can recognise the patterns of each smell. “It’s very sensitive—it can distinguish different brands of coffee, for example,” says Rammensee.
The e-nose has already singled out mice with different MHC genes by sniffing their urine. And, as the team will report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it can also distinguish the smell of blood serum from people with different MHC genes.
The jury is still out on whether MHC smells affect our choice of partners (New Scientist, 10 February, p 36). We probably mask MHC smells with perfumes and deodorants. So a partner might only subconsciously register them after a long exposure. Rather than being involved in the dating game, MHC incompatibility may manifest itself in today’s high divorce rate.
Rammensee suggests that sociologists could use the e-nose to test this idea, sniffing divorced couples to see if they have a higher incidence of MHC incompatibility than those celebrating their silver wedding anniversary, for example. “It is speculation,” he cautions. But if the idea is confirmed, courting couples could one day be surreptitiously sniffing each other with e-noses to find out if they make a good match.
The Guardian (London)
September 27, 2001
Follow your nose: Sniffing out a partner could lead to good health for your children
By Sanjida O’Connell
An electronic nose has sniffed out the solution to a biological problem. For the past 20 years scientists have noticed that mice choose mates with a different immune system. The researchers assumed this was because the mice were able to detect this difference by smell; a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes how an electronic nose, normally used in the food industry, has been able to smell this difference in immunity, too.
The work backs up two decades of observation on mice, but it also has implications for how we sniff out our mates and why we sometimes choose to leave them. Mice choose mates that have a different major histocompatibility complex (MHC) to themselves. The MHC is a class of molecules involved in the immune system. They bind to invading antigens and ferry them to T-cells. The T-cells then produce antibodies to combat the pathogen. Mating with a mouse with a different MHC means offspring will inherit both their parents’ immune system genes and may confer better immunity.
However, when female mice are pregnant, they choose to spend time with individuals who have a very similar kind of MHC and thus a similar genetic make-up to themselves; researchers think this is because they want to be with mice who are likely to be related to themselves.
Male mice often kill infants, or make the female abort so that when they mate with the female, they can be sure the youngsters are theirs. Females want to be with their own kin who will share genes with the female’s infants and so will not cause her to abort the offspring.
So how can the mice tell who shares genes with them? Mammals have a vomeronasal organ that was thought to detect only pheromones. All it takes is a few molecules of a certain chemical to enable mammals to smell their own species up to a half-mile away, said Milos Novotny, distinguished professor of chemistry and director of the Institute for Pheromone Research at Indiana University. Unlike the part of the nose that detects ordinary smells, the vomeronasal organ is connected directly to the mid-brain which controls instinctive behaviour.
“This is the shortest organ-to-brain distance in mammalian biology,” says Prof Novotny. In a paper published in the journal Nature, Novotny and his colleagues from Harvard Medical School in Boston reported that the vomeronasal organ can detect certain smells as well as pheromones. It can smell odorants classified as animalic, camphoraceous, citrus, floral, fruity, minty, musky, sweet or woody. Like pheromones, these odorants can be detected at extremely small concentrations.
“The house mouse provides a classic example of an elaborate pheromone communication system: to signal inter-male aggression and dominance, to show readiness for mating, to slow down or accelerate the onset of puberty as needed, or to signal stress to the other members of a colony,” says Prof. Novotny, whose lab identified the first definitive mammalian pheromones in the late 80s. One possibility is that the mice use their VNO to detect a smell or a pheromone associated with MHC.
The electronic nose, developed at Tubingen University in Germany, was used by Hans-Georg Rammensee at the same university to smell mice urine and blood. Although they found that the nose is capable of sniffing the differences between mice that had differing MHCs, what the nose was smelling is a mystery. If it was a pheromone, it would have to be a byproduct of MHC since these immune chemicals are odourless.
Humans do not have a vomeronasal organ and there has been considerable debate as to whether we can detect pheromones—or if we even produce them. However, biologist Claus Wedekind, currently at the University of Edinburgh, carried out research at the University of Bern in Switzerland, which showed that women could distinguish between men who had different MHCs.
The men wore a plain T-shirt for two nights running and were not allowed to use any fragranced products. Women were then asked to smell the sweat-soaked garments and rate which ones they found most attractive. Dr Wedekind discovered that women found the men’s smell pleasant when they had a different MHC from their own. The twist in the tale is that women who were on contraceptive pills chose T-shirts belonging to men who had a similar immunity complex to their own. This is perhaps because the contraceptive pill works by fooling the body into believing it is in the early stages of pregnancy; in other words, the women were acting like the pregnant mice, choosing men who shared more genes with them.
The implication is that women who start dating men while they are on the pill are not choosing men who have the best genes for their children, and this could result in infertility or miscarriages.
But do we really choose our partners on the basis of their smell in the real world of office intrigue, lonely hearts and late night bars? We can’t be certain, but work carried out by Dr Carole Ober, from the University of Chicago, seems to support Dr Wedekind’s research.
For the past 15 years she has been studying the Hutterites of North America, a religious sect originating from the Tyrolean Alps. The Hutterites of South Dakota are descended from only 64 individuals, they live and farm communally and are a perfect test case for Dr Wedekind’s theory. They marry once (divorce is forbidden), rarely use contraceptives and wear no perfume or deodorants. Dr Ober found that despite the high level of relatedness, couples tended to have dissimilar genes for MHC; only 44 out of 411 had an immune system that matched to some extent. However, in these cases there was a higher rate of miscarriages.
Using the electronic nose, Dr Rammensee has been able to smell this difference in MHCs between men by sniffing their blood serum. He and his colleagues are now attempting to find out just what it is we can smell.
As he says, smell could have important consequences for the future of our relationships: “When you’re young, you may use a lot of perfume which could overlay the original smell. Later on, smelling the other person in the absence of perfume could lead to a negative perception of your partner.”
But rather than hiding our own natural odour, many people flaunt it. Dr Wedekind has found that both men and women choose perfumes that smell similar to their own natural MHC: we are fragrantly advertising the kind of immune system we have. The solution, it seems, is to choose a perfume you hope mimics your own scent and wear it all the time.
United Press International
September 30, 2001
Electronic nose sniffs for infection
A team of students at the Illinois Institute of Technology have built an electronic nose so sensitive it can identify bacteria with a just a sniff.
Every pathogen gives off a unique gaseous mix as it grows, said Christopher Marong, the ITT senior who headed up the team of student researchers. The super nose uses chemical sensors to detect the gas that rises from a bacteria culture.
“The chemical sensors then send an electronic message to a computer program that identifies the pathogen,” he told United Press International.
Marong’s group used the nose to successfully identify a number of common blood infections. Their findings are published in the Sept. 30 issue of the Journal of Microbiology.
The students decided to test the electronic nose on bacteria after a meeting with laboratory technicians from Cook County Hospital in Chicago. The lab techs mentioned that when working with blood cultures they noticed some pathogens give off a distinctive smell.
Marong said as bacteria grow in culture “they release different gases.”
“By sniffing the area above the bacteria, the electronic nose identifies the gas,” he added.
Although the nose built by Marong’s team still requires bacteria culture—a process that takes 24 to 48 hours in a lab—he said it is likely the process can be speeded up as the nose undergoes further development. The ideal, he said, would be a nose that could analyze a person’s breath to detect bacteria.
“But that could take another 10 years or so,” he said.
The electronic nose actually is a bulky device that fits into an old computer casing. “Chemical sensors are bulky and difficult to miniaturize,” Marong said. Other researchers using different types of sensory arrays have prototypes of much smaller devices, some of which are designed to be handheld, he said.
Dr. Joseph Stetter, a professor at ITT, said a number of researchers have been experimenting with electronic noses. Some of these devices are used commercially for testing “rancidity of olive oil, perfume scents and analysis of coffee,” he told UPI.
Stetter, who was not involved in Marong’s study, said electronic noses mimic the human nose in that they “have a sampling system to draw in the odor, a sensor array to detect different odors and an identification system.”
When a human inhales, odor is drawn into the nose, which is lined by sensitive cells that detect the odor and send signals to the brain, which identifies it. Stetter said the advantage of the electronic nose is it can be built to be much more sensitive to smell than its human counterpart. This heightened sensitivity is akin to the superior sniffing ability of dogs.
“Dogs, for example, can be trained to sniff explosives,” Stetter said. “Humans can’t do that, but an electronic nose could be constructed to do that.”
Medical Industry Today
October 8, 2001
‘Nose’ Technology Might Help Doctors Identify Blood Pathogens Faster
Researchers have developed a sensing technology that might allow doctors to detect and identify pathogens in the blood much faster than conventional lab tests can, the Illinois Institute of Technology announced late last week. The results of the student-led study at IIT will be published in the Sept. 30 issue of the “Journal of Microbiology.”
The sensing device is called an electronic nose. It is an array of small sensors that detect gases given off by microscopic organisms, such as e. coli and staphylococcus bacteria, that can infect the blood. The sensors are linked to a computer that analyzes the gas signature and compares it to signatures from known pathogens. Current laboratory methods take up to 48 hours to identify pathogens in the blood. IIT says the electronic nose can cut the time to 24 hours.
Electronic noses are arrays of sensors that sense microscopic particles, much like the receptors inside the human nose. “There are millions of neurons that bind molecules in the nose that the brain recognizes as specific odors,” Christopher Morong, an IIT senior who co-authored the paper said in a statement. “The e-nose is the same way, except it only has eight sensors, but it still has the potential to identify hundreds of specific scent signatures.” Electronic noses that can identify the presence of the tuberculosis bacteria are also in development.
The blood sniffing e-nose was developed by students in IIT’s Interprofessional Program (IPRO), which brings together students from different disciplines at different experience levels to solve a problems posed by companies or IIT faculty. Morong is entering his fourth year as a chemistry and physics major at IIT. He first got involved with the e-nose project through joining the e-nose IPRO as a freshman. Morong helped develop the software that runs the e-nose and is responsible for pattern recognition.
The e-nose was developed in response to lab technicians at Provident Hospital of Cook County in Chicago who noticed that when testing blood for pathogens, there would often be certain odors that were strongly linked to the type of pathogen they would find.
Current tests for blood pathogens require lab technicians to culture the blood for 24 hours, allowing any bacteria to grow to detectable levels. The culture is then tested for specific pathogens. The whole process takes about 48 hours. “Ultimately, we’d like to be able to take blood from a patient, and use the e-nose to sniff out the pathogens right away,” says Morong. “But without growing the pathogen up, its hard to detect any gases.”
November 5, 2002
Beating Pneumonia by a Nose: Electronic Nose Detects Pneumonia in Critically Ill Patients
PHILADELPHIA, Nov. 5 – According to a team of researchers from University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, an electronic nose—a relatively new version of a sensor previously used in the food, wine and perfume industries—can quickly and accurately diagnose pneumonia in critically ill, mechanically ventilated patients. The results will be presented at the CHEST 2002 Annual Meeting Tuesday, Nov. 5, in San Diego.
“We wanted to further explore using the e-nose after the exciting results of an initial study we conducted back in 1997 with only 20 patients,” said C. William Hanson, III, MD, associate professor of Anesthesia, Surgery and Internal Medicine, and lead author of the study. When it comes to lower pulmonary infections, especially in critically ill patients, time is of the essence for disease control. “Rather than waiting two to three days for the results of a bacterial culture or relying on chest X-rays which aren’t always accurate, the e-nose can give us a head start toward a proper diagnoses. We could avoid over-prescribing powerful antibiotics which are usually given to patients while we’re waiting for their test results, even though we don’t know if they actually need them,” adds Hanson.
In the current study, 415 mechanically ventilated, critical care patients were screened for the presence of ventilator associated pneumonia [VAP] using a clinical pneumonia score [CPIS]. Patients with high CPIS scores were enrolled in the study as well as control patients who had no evidence of pneumonia. An exhaled breath sample was taken from each patient directly from the expiratory limb of the ventilator circuit into an electronic nose made by Cyrano Sciences, Pasadena, CA. This differs from the original study where breath samples were collected in plastic bags from the ventilators of intubated intensive care patients and then fed into a different electronic nose.
The e-nose contains an array of sensors consisting of carbon-black/polymer composites. The patient’s exhaled breath gas was passed over these sensors which interact with volatile molecules to produce unique patterns that are displayed in two-dimensional “maps,” or dot patterns on a computer screen. The results were analyzed using pattern recognition algorithms and assessed for a correlation between the actual CPIS scores and the one predicted by the nose. Hanson and his colleagues found that the nose made clear distinctions between the patients who were infected and those who were not.
“The data show good correlation between the actual scores and those predicted by the data from the e-nose sensor,” said Hanson. “Furthermore, this study suggests that the commercial electronic nose, as is, would be reasonably successful in predicting ventilator associated pneumonia. It would be even more suited to the task if the sensor array could be customized.” Preliminary data also suggests that the e-nose may be able to distinguish between pneumonias caused by different bacterial infections.
Cyrano Sciences, Inc., donated a “Cyranose” electronic nose for use in this study.
Crain’s Cleveland Business
November 19, 2001
Electronic nose can sniff out landfill odors; CWRU researchers develop meter to gauge smells
By Tracy Hayhurst
The mix of materials found in landfills and the byproducts that they produce can brew intense, often unpleasant aromas.
Researchers at Case Western Reserve University have designed an “electronic nose” to measure odors at a landfill in an effort to better quantify the offending scents.
“Odor is a major aesthetic problem for landfills,” said Aaron Jennings, professor of civil engineering at CWRU. “There’s no way to quantify it. We could measure specific gases, but that doesn’t measure odor. A device like this had been used for produce to determine whether it was fresh or over-fresh, and industrially to determine if processes were running correctly.”
The original meter from which the “nose” is adapted takes gas samples and analyzes them for specific chemicals.
“That gives you a response to relate to how it smells,” Mr. Jennings said. “But that’s different information. If the fundamental problem is that it smells bad, then the chemical concentrations don’t help you.”
The modified meter, which is about 8 inches long and 4 inches wide, plugs into a computer to interpret results that have been measured. Mr. Jennings said it works similarly to the nose: Air enters the nasal passages and flows over sensors that send signals to the brain about the odors detected.
“A nose doesn’t know anything about what it smells,” he said. “The information goes to your brain, which tells you.”
The battery-powered, hand-held meter’s 32 sensors measure concentrations in the air pumped over them. The data is harvested and then loaded into a computer that has been “trained” to interpret the measurements as odors.
“You have to have a basis for interpretations,” Mr. Jennings said. “The meter does not come with knowledge. If you want to analyze a particular odor, you have to train it. You put measurements into the computer’s memory, and then you can compare odors on-site to what is in the memory.”
Anything you can do with a nose, you can do with the meter, Mr. Jennings said. “It has the advantage of creating a record and documentation,” he said. However, the meter cannot be used naively, Mr. Jennings said.
The technology caught the attention of the Washington-based Environmental Research and Education Foundation, which awarded CWRU a $38,000 grant toward the year-long project.
“This kind of technology has been used in the perfume industry to detect contamination or determine whether it smells right,” said Edward Repa, the foundation’s director of environmental programs. “They’re trying to adapt it so it works for the landfill industry. They expect to be able to give a printout or fingerprint of what an odor looks like.”
The idea behind the project is “to adapt so the owner or operator, who is under regulatory controls, can be aware of odors,” Mr. Repa said. “The first thing people think about when something stinks is, ‘It’s the landfill.’ Well, is it? This can give us an indication. Maybe it’s not the landfill because the fingerprint doesn’t match.”
The electronic nose may also be useful as a monitoring device for landfill owners and operators so they can check to see if their controls are working and perhaps prevent bad odors from occurring, he said.
The Environmental Research and Education Foundation, created in 1992 by members of the solid waste service and equipment industry, funds research for solid waste technology development, better workplace safety and practices and scholarships for environmental science.
Mr. Jennings and his colleagues plan to apply the technology to other areas, including composting facilities, Dumpsters and waste transfer stations.
“Public health officials might well be served by having a meter they can take to sites,” Mr. Jennings said. “It’s always a judgment call, but now you have a way to quantify it.”
More calibrations are pending on the sensors in an effort to make the meter more comprehensive.
“We have some more development to do with sensors to handle low concentrations of organic gases that cause odors in environmental situations,” Mr. Jennings said. “Humans are very sensitive to low concentrations of environmental odors; the sensors are not yet.”
December 20, 2001
Consumed: A Matter of Taste
By Marty Jones
…Researchers estimate that approximately two million people in the United States suffer from some sort of smell/taste disorder. While a small percentage are born without a sense of smell or taste, the majority experience these disorders later in life, with most of them suffering from anosmia, loss of their total sense of smell—at least temporarily. And when you can’t smell them, foods deliver little beyond the basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty and bitter. (Smell constitutes about 75 percent of the sensations that combine with taste, texture and spiciness to create the perception of flavor.) While many sufferers experience a partial smell or taste loss, a rare few completely lose their sense of taste—and when that goes, so does much of life’s sweetness.
“Some people get severely depressed,” says Miriam Linschoten, who heads up the Center for Taste and Smell Disorders at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “You lose a very important part of yourself. It’s an enormous loss.” Linschoten has been studying taste and smell disorders since 1993; her Denver research office is one of six such centers in the United States. Working with Dr. Bruce Jafek, an ear-nose-throat specialist at the CU Health Sciences Center, she tracks down the causes of smell and taste disorders and helps her patients repair or manage their troubles.
Linschoten’s database includes information on 600 smell- and taste-impaired clients in Colorado and around the world. The causes of her client’s maladies stretch from head injuries (blows to the head can sever the nerve endings that lead from the sinuses to the brain) to sinus infections or colds that have damaged smell sensors high in the nasal cavity. Some of her clients have lost their sense of smell from a rare side effect of going under general anesthesia or through reactions to certain medicines. …
Linschoten puts her clients through a battery of tests that identify the type, severity and cause of their sensory loss. The process can be tough: “It’s not unusual that when I test someone and they’re trying hard to smell something, they start crying,” she says.
…Without nosing skills, people can’t detect the odor of spoiled food; they face a greater risk of getting food poisoning from things coming out of their own refrigerators. (Some label and date their food to avoid this problem.) Personal safety may also be compromised: Natural-gas leaks and smoke from unseen fires can no longer be detected, cheating victims of a valuable defense mechanism.
That dilemma led to job changes for Terry Woodruff, one of Linschoten’s subjects. An Air Force colonel and pilot stationed in Yuma, Arizona, Woodruff is no longer allowed to fly solo because of his inability to detect airborne danger signs in the cockpit. “It changes your whole life around,” Woodruff says of olfactory loss.
Fortunately, Linschoten and Jafek are able to help some patients. If a person suffers from a growth or obstruction in the nose, Jafek can perform surgery to unclog the sinuses and restore airflow to the scent sensors. People who’ve lost their sense of smell to viral infections or colds can often get it back through surgery and time, although that return can take up to three years.
But many are forced to live with the fact that without the powers of flavor and aroma, life can seem rather bland. “I do miss out a lot,” says Barbara Stanton, a Golden resident and Linschoten client who says she hasn’t detected a whiff of the world since she was four years old and broke her nose. Like many who lose one of their senses, though, Stanton has found that her other senses stepped up to help compensate for the shortcoming. So while she can’t stop and smell the roses, she says, “I can stop and look at them and admire them for their color and beauty.”
She’s managed to develop a love for cookies (a big plus this time of year), along with other foods that bring pleasure through texture and assertive flavors. “But if somebody asks me to ‘smell this,’ that’s frustrating,” she says. “I love red wine, although the bouquet isn’t there. It has an acidness to it, and there’s a body to a good red wine that’s pleasurable. But it’s frustrating when the label says ‘overtones of raspberry and plum,’ and I think, ‘I don’t know anything about that.’” …
Los Angeles Magazine
January 1, 2002
ELECTRONIC-NOSE TECHNOLOGY is not bionic, nor is it meant to be. For the small number of Americans born every year with anosmia—the total absence of smell—there is no nasal equivalent of a hearing aid or LASIK surgery. Those suffering from the disease, which runs in families, can’t hook themselves up to an e-nose; they often face both their parents’ shame and their friends’ incredulity.
Since smell accounts for as much as 90 percent of what we perceive as taste, an anosmic experiences the world without two of the body’s five routes of input and is frequently oblivious to impending danger. “As a child I fell asleep while cooking supper and was awakened by the neighbor—not by the black smoke above my head,” wrote one victim on an Internet bulletin board last year. “Taxidermy gone awry has decomposed in my room, I’ve had food poisoning numerous times, and I’ve been to the hospital more than once because of ammonia poisoning. Having no sense of smell is dangerous in this Western society of ours.”
Others may experience anosmia or related disorders at some point during life. Severe head trauma can sever the connection between the olfactory epithelia and bulb. A rare form of brain tumor can press directly on the bulb, causing olfactory hallucinations. Workers in nail salons and other chemically harsh environments sometimes experience hyposmia, a dulling of smell, as do smokers and cocaine users. German physiologist Ernst Weber damaged the receptors in his nose when he bent over and poured perfume into his nostrils in an effort to prove that only gases, not liquids, can be smelled. (He was wrong.)
Like the other senses, smell deteriorates with age. It shouldn’t disappear altogether, however, and Jack Hilton has come to the Nasal Dysfunction Clinic at UCSD’s Thornton Hospital in La Jolla from Green Valley, Arizona, because one day last January he couldn’t smell the popcorn he was popping. Since then Hilton, 84, hasn’t experienced a single odor. He lives in a retirement home and isn’t concerned about missing a fire or a gas leak.
He does miss the taste of foods like chocolate. “You get to depending more on texture,” he says; he now finds himself eating lots of prunes and saltine crackers. A former FAA administrator, Hilton is articulate and healthy, looking, his round head wrinkled like soft leather and his mouth encircled by a white goatee. He fears lapsing into the sensory-deprived torpor in which many of his fellow residents exist. “Some of them just live in cocoons,” he says.
Hilton is questioned about his medical history by William Cain, a professor of otolaryngology and the director of UCSD’s Chemosensory Perception Laboratory. A clear pattern soon emerges. Around 1930 Hilton’s sinuses became so congested that a physician was forced to puncture and drain them. Since then he has endured occasional infections and postnasal drip. He has moderate to severe allergies. About five years ago he had a polyp removed, receiving postoperative care that Cain finds lacking.
Cain hands Hilton small containers of household products such as cinnamon, peanut butter, and Ivory soap and shows him a list of the smells to help him identify them. Hilton gets just a hint of the mothballs and Vick’s Vapo-Rub but otherwise can’t discern anything. He is then given a series of plastic bottles with the alcohol butanol in increasing concentrations. A healthy nose would pick up the liquids vapor even at the weakest dilution, but not until one of the last bottles—the nasal equivalent of a baseball bat to the head—does Hilton notice a tingling sensation.
Not being a medical doctor, Cain relies on the clinic’s physician, Terence Davidson, to make a diagnosis but suspects Hilton suffers from sinus disease, a frequent and often undetected cause of anosmia. The treatment in such cases is usually pharmaceutical: steroids, saline rinse, more steroids. Hilton stands a good chance of smelling popcorn again.
Leaving the clinic for the day, Cain voices disapproval of modern medicine’s handling of anosmia victims. “I get the feeling the physicians aren’t listening,” he says. Informative histories, like Jack Hilton’s lifetime of sinus trouble, are being ignored in favor of clinical testing, which may be inconclusive. It takes more than ten minutes to get information from a patient,” Cain says. He even admits to periodic disagreements with Davidson, especially in cases where examinations such as CT scan and endoscopy don’t support the pattern and history that Cain uncovers. “His evidence trumps mine.”
If some doctors can’t grasp the plight of anosmics, Proust could. In 1891, at the age of 20, he was prompted to fill out a personal questionnaire at a social event. When asked to describe his dream of happiness, he demurred carefully. “I don’t dare say,” he wrote. “I fear destroying it with the mere mention.” The perfect scent can be just as fragile and slippery; one fears inhaling too deeply will spoil the effect. In a fleeting wisp of air a tiny fantasy world—or a lost love, or an entire childhood—may rush back into the mind’s arms or vanish forever into the night’s ether. For someone who has lost the sense of smell, these are times never regained.
Derby Evening Telegraph
March 30, 2002
Advice for no smell or taste
People who have no sense of smell or taste can get support from a group which meets every month.
Derby Anosmia Group also gives information to people whose main concern is their inability to smell smoke or sense a gas leak.
The group meets on the first Monday of the month at 2.30pm in the Central Library meeting room, in the Strand.
October 15, 2002
Life with a Sense of Loss
By Martha Roberts
OUR senses help us to understand our world.
Without them we couldn’t hear, smell, taste, see or touch but some people are born without one of their senses and others lose them after an accident or illness.
Raynaud’s disease, which affects one in 10 Britons, can leave sufferers unable to feel properly. Head injuries, w hich affect a million people a year, often lead to loss of taste and smell. Graham Nixon, of the brain injury charity Headway, says: “At least 20 per cent of people who suffer a head injury find their sense of smell is affected and 5 per cent lose it.
Because smell is linked to taste, sufferers often find that they can’t tell w hat they’re eating either.”
There are 8.7million people in Britain who are deaf or hard of hearing, while about 10 per cent of adults—4.7million—have experienced tinnitus (ringing in the ears) for more than five minutes.
A report published by the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) today highlights the fact that people underestimate the prevalence of sight loss, too. Statistics show that 100 people start losing their sight every day, with one in 12 becoming blind or partially sighted by 60.
Research also shows sight is the sense we fear losing most.
Here, five people explain how they live without one of their senses.
SHARON BAILEY, 47, lost her sense of taste and smell after a head injury. A semi-retired partner at accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, she lives near Pewsey, Wiltshire, with her husband John, 48, a leasing specialist. They have two daughters, Siobhan, 22, and Anna, 19
I LOST my sense of smell in October 1998 when I fell out of my attic. I didn’t have any sign of injury except a bruised bottom. Because it was an accident I didn’t take it that seriously, even though I was knocked out and had no memory for a week.
It wasn’t until I was in the US on business a few weeks later that the full impact became apparent. I was in New York around Thanksgiving with a business partner when she said: “Don’t the food stalls smell wonderful?” I couldn’t smell a thing.
When I got home, the specialists said the fall must have damaged the olfactory nerve, responsible for taste and smell.
I felt isolated. Eating became hell because the pleasure had gone. I lost a tremendous amount of weight.
Food has always played a big part in my life. I worked for Marks & Spencer and Tesco developing their labels which involved sampling food. I thought the memory of tastes would stay but I’ve lost many of them. I feel like part of the picture is missing but with the support of others it gets easier.
For further information and advice about brain injury, contact Headway on 0115 924 0800 or visit www.headway.org.uk
JENNY COOPER, 28, has suffered from a lack of smell (anosmia) for six years. She is a process engineer and lives with her husband Leo, 28, a graphic designer in Acton, West London
MY sense of smell started to go in 1996. I put it down to having three colds in a row.
When my flatmate said I had put lots of garlic in the food but I couldn’t smell or taste it I knew it wasn’t just in my mind.
A specialist said the colds had likely caused the skin on the inside of my nose to cover up the nerves responsible for smell and they had died.
Having no smell has more advantages than disadvantages. The toilets at the Glastonbury Festival caused problems for everyone except me.
Occasionally I get smells randomly coming back in my mind but I no longer wear perfume. I can’t tell how much I’ve got on.
I do worry about not being able to smell gas. I also set some oven gloves on fire because I couldn’t smell them smouldering. I’d love my sense of smell to come back. It could one day if the nerves heal but there is no guarantee. It’s not life-threatening, so I can’t really complain.
For more information visit the Osme Fellowship website at www.osme.co.uk.
November 6, 2002
Illness, preconceptions can overpower taste
By Deborah Scoblionkov
On a trip to Italy last year, I arranged to meet with one of my favorite winemakers, Maurizio Zanella of the Ca’del Bosco winery, in Lombardy, a region in the north.
A few days before our meeting, I came down with a nasty sinus infection. When I awoke that morning, I discovered that the coffee tasted different. It had a bitter bite but no aroma or flavor. Then I walked outside and felt the chill, but could smell nothing of the Italian mountains’ cool autumn air.
At the winery, Zanella brought out a 1990 pinot noir from his cellar—his best. He proudly opened it and poured. I swirled and sniffed. Nothing. I sipped and swished it around my mouth. Again, nothing but a strange, haunting, elusive memory of what I thought I should be tasting.
I’d lost my sense of smell and, consequently, taste. It was one of the saddest days of my life.
The next few days were surreal and disorienting, a blur of blandness as I watched a movie of breathtakingly beautiful landscapes but felt no real connection to my surroundings.
Meals were boring and depressing. I’d order the cheapest things on the menu, because it really didn’t matter what I put into my mouth. It all tasted exactly the same (think cardboard), with slight variations in texture and temperature.
One night, I even ordered anchovies—which I absolutely detest—to test my gag reflex. I noticed a slight saltiness, but otherwise nothing.
Permanent anosmia, or the inability to smell, affects an estimated 1.2 percent of the population, but most of us (two out of three) will suffer temporary anosmia at some point in our lives. Fortunately, my sense of smell returned within a week.
I thought of that experience recently while reading an article about the mysteries of smell and taste. Scientists are looking to wine tastings and tasters to unlock secrets of the powers of smell and perception.
A study called “Tasting: A Chemical Object Representation in the Field of Consciousness,” the doctoral dissertation of Frenchman Frederic Brochet, was published last year. Brochet examined how wine experts’ expectations may influence how they perceive wines.
This study confirmed what many have suspected: that wine tasters taste what they expect to taste.
Brochet subjected 54 eminent Bordeaux wine experts to a few tricky tastings. One day he served them a white wine and a red wine and asked them to describe the wines.
A few days later, he served them two glasses of the same white wine they had tasted earlier, but added a flavorless dye to one glass to make it look like red wine. The experts described the two wines in completely different terms, based on their expectations.
Interestingly, the least-experienced wine tasters were the most likely to recognize that the emperor had no clothes and described the two glasses of wines in similar terms.
Brochet also served them a so-so red wine poured from two different bottles. One bottle was labeled as a lowly vin de pays, a simple country wine. The other bottle’s label identified it as a pricey grand cru, or great growth. The tasters adjusted their descriptions to fit their expectations. In other words, they were drinking the labels, not the wine.
I recently attended an extraordinary wine tasting at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, where half a dozen wine aficionados and bon vivants celebrated by uncorking great Bordeaux wines from the vintages of their birth, and then some.
The wines included a 1928 Chateau Petrus, a 1929 Chateau Mouton, a 1941 Chateau Mouton, a 1945 Chateau Croizet Bages, a 1945 Clos Rene, a 1947 Chateau Haut-Brion, and a 1956 Chateau Margaux. At auction, they would have fetched an estimated $10,000. How did they taste? Most were, frankly, undrinkable. One exception was the 1928 Chateau Petrus, a surprisingly virile and vital wine with all the luscious, seductive charms of an old roue.
Another surprise was the rare 1956 Chateau Margaux. Apparently, very little Bordeaux was produced that year because bad weather damaged the vineyards. But our wine survived with some of its grace and dignity intact and offered some pleasantly mature flavors.
The rest were in various stages of decomposition into vinegar and the wine equivalent of rigor mortis.
But hey, there’s something worse than smelling a stinky, noxious odor: not being able to smell at all.
Canadian Business and Current Affairs Medical Post
November 26, 2002
E-nose gives head start to diagnosing pneumonia: noninvasive device makes accurate, quick diagnosis of ventilated patients
By John Schieszer
SAN DIEGO - In the not-too-distant future, you may be able to instantly diagnose community-acquired pneumonia or sinusitis with an electronic nose.
“It is inexpensive and it is non-invasive,” said Dr. William Hanson, who is with the University of Pennsylvania school of medicine. “If it proves to be helpful in cutting down on unnecessary testing or unnecessary administration of antibiotics, then it is going to be a big win.
“We could potentially not test people who have a low score on the electronic nose test. Then we could avoid treating them empirically, or we could potentially treat them earlier and more effectively if they have a high score on the test.” Dr. Hanson presented findings on new potential uses of the electronic nose at CHEST 2002. He and his research team have found an electronic nose, a relatively new version of a sensor previously used in the food, wine and perfume industries, can quickly and accurately diagnose pneumonia in critically ill, mechanically ventilated patients.
“We wanted to further explore using the e-nose after the exciting results of an initial study we conducted back in 1997 with only 20 patients,” explained Dr. Hanson. “Rather than waiting two to three days for the results of a bacterial culture or relying on chest X-rays that aren’t always accurate, the e-nose can give us a head start toward a proper diagnosis. We could avoid over-prescribing powerful antibiotics, which are usually given to patients while we’re waiting for their test results, even though we don’t know if they actually need them.”
In the current study, 415 mechanically ventilated, critical-care patients were screened for the presence of ventilator-associated pneumonia using a clinical pneumonia score (CPIS). Patients with high CPIS scores were enrolled in the study, as well as control patients who had no evidence of pneumonia.
An exhaled breath sample was taken from each patient directly from the expiratory limb of the ventilator circuit into an electronic nose made by Cyrano Sciences of Pasadena, Calif. (This differs from the original study, where breath samples were collected in plastic bags from the ventilators of intubated intensive care patients and then fed into a different electronic nose.)
“We are looking at the electronic nose in the ICU patient population right now. But we are also looking at using it in walk-in patients in primary care offices for diagnosing either community acquired pneumonia or sinusitis. The goal is to identify infection and hopefully to identify one infection from another,” he said.
The e-nose contains an array of sensors consisting of carbon-black/polymer composites. The patient’s exhaled breath gas is passed over these sensors, which interact with volatile molecules to produce unique patterns that are displayed in two-dimensional “maps,” or dot patterns on a computer screen. The results are analysed using pattern recognition algorithms and assessed for a correlation between the actual CPIS scores and the one predicted by the nose.
Dr. Hanson and his colleagues found the e-nose made clear distinctions between the patients who were infected and those who were not. Currently, the Pennsylvania researchers are collaborating with investigators in Europe to start testing the e-nose in a variety of settings.
“The data show good correlation between the actual (diagnosis) and (what is) predicted by the data from the e-nose sensor,” said Dr. Hanson. “Furthermore, this study suggests the commercial electronic nose, as is, would be reasonably successful in predicting ventilator-associated pneumonia. It would be even more suited to the task if the sensor array could be customized.”
“The electronic nose has a lot of possibilities. It certainly could be used for other applications as well,” said Dr. Michael Niederman, chairman of the department of medicine at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y. “It might make a good tool for monitoring therapy and to determine if a patient’s pneumonia is getting better.”
“If it proves to be helpful in cutting down on unnecessary testing or unnecessary administration of antibiotics, then it is going to be a big win.”
The Houston Chronicle
January 03, 2003
Diminished sense of smell can be unhealthy and even dangerous
By Dru Sefton
Karl Wuensch remembers that moment, in 1990, when he realized something was terribly wrong with him.
“I was at the kitchen table, just eating some food,” said Wuensch, 55, a psychology professor. “My wife came in and grabbed her nose and gagged and said, ‘That’s rotten!’”
Wuensch couldn’t smell that the food had spoiled. He couldn’t smell anything. He was anosmic.
A new study estimates that up to 62 percent of Americans over age 53 have olfactory impairments such as anosmia (no sense of smell) or hyposmia (a greatly diminished sense of smell). The disorders can be dangerous: Sufferers may not eat properly because they can’t taste much, and they can’t smell gas leaks or smoke.
As Wuensch said, “I burned up a couple of toasters without ever knowing it.”
The latest research, published in November in the Journal of the American Medical Association, draws attention to the little-discussed problem of smell disorders of all age groups, often overlooked by physicians and unknown to patients. Causes vary, from genetics to viruses, chemical exposure, head injuries, nasal polyps or neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Study author Claire Murphy, psychology professor at San Diego State University, said tests showed the prevalence of smell loss among seniors is “much larger than previously appreciated.” Earlier estimates put the number of older Americans with smell-related disorders at 2.7 million; this new study suggests it is closer to 14 million.
A team of researchers conducted individual interviews with more than 2,500 participants ages 53 to 97, exposing them to the “natural odors” of eight familiar items, such as chocolate. Participants identified the odor by pointing to corresponding items on a picture board.
One intriguing revelation was that males were much more likely than females to suffer from smell loss, Murphy said. Researchers don’t yet know why.
According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 200,000 Americans of all ages visit physicians each year with smell-related problems.
One such patient is Marla Litz, 43, who traveled from her home near Atlanta to meet with Dr. Robert Henkin at his Taste and Smell Clinic in Washington, D.C. Litz’s sense of smell—and taste—has been “on and off” for more than a year now, since sinus surgery.
“You don’t realize how much of our lives revolve around smelling and eating: ‘Oh, do you smell that?’ ‘Oh, that tastes so good!’” Litz said. “I don’t want to socialize as much, because I just don’t get as much enjoyment out of it.”
Still other sufferers may be embarrassed to come forward. Wuensch, on the faculty at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., said that if he discusses anosmia in social situations, “either people don’t believe you, or they make fun of you.”
Wuensch’s anosmia was caused by benign growths called nasal polyps. After 10 years of physician consultations, several surgeries and different medications, Wuensch finally found a combination of treatments that restored his sense of smell: Injections of a long-acting steroid every nine to 12 months, weekly allergy shots and daily steroid nasal spray.
“Once I got my sense of smell back, I realized what I had lost,” he said.
Richard L. Doty knows how patients like Wuensch feel. “When people lose their sense of smell, it can be devastating,” said Doty, director of the University of Pennsylvania Smell and Taste Center in Philadelphia.
The center is one of the few clinics that specialize in smell disorders and closely related taste problems. In the early 1980s researchers there developed a 40-item “scratch and sniff” diagnostic test still used around the world, Doty said.
Also in Philadelphia is the Monell-Jefferson Taste and Smell Clinic, a nonprofit research center that evaluates and treats patients as well as studies their diverse problems.
Research at Monell-Jefferson has shown that some patients can regain their sense of smell, “although it’s difficult to predict who,” director Beverly Cowartsaid. “Relatively little is known about the frequency of recovery, or the time it takes.”
About two-thirds of patients who lose their sense of smell due to a viral infection recover at least partially after two years, she said.
Too few physicians focus on olfactory problems, said Henkin, the Washington physician and researcher. “It just falls between the cracks” of medical specialties.
Few people can empathize. When Litz discusses her problem, “people shrug it off; they don’t think it’s a big deal,” she said. “Until you don’t have it, believe me, you don’t realize what a big deal it is.”
Meanwhile, Henkin’s clinic is handling its capacity of patients, between 500 and 1,000 per month. He’s hoping to franchise such clinics across the country.
“The patients deserve it,” he said.
MX (Melbourne, Australia)
January 28, 2003
A nose for being thin
Smelling food might be the latest way to lose weight.
Researchers have discovered that when people get too much of a particular smell, they don’t feel as hungry and they eat less.
Volunteers lost almost 13.5kg in six months without any food restrictions.
Patients with acute anosmia a lack of a sense of smell often gain weight and have a limited sense of taste.
Dr Alan Hirsh, of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, says ordinary diets don’t work because they restrict or change what people eat.
“Ninety per cent of what is perceived as taste is actually smell,” he adds.
More than 3000 overweight volunteers were given an inhaler with a blend of odours and told to inhale three times a day when they felt hungry.
Those with normal smelling senses who used their inhalers lost about 2.3kg each month.
St. Petersburg Times
April 11, 2003
Times moves on, with nose, eyes and ears going along
By Jan Glidewell
It began with the smell of ham salad.
I was driving from Dade City to Brooksville and noticed that the interior of my van smelled like ham salad.
It doesn’t say much for my automotive housekeeping, I guess, that strange smells in my van are not cause for immediate concern, and I remember making some vague mental note to do something about cleaning it sometime in the not-to-far-distant future.
When I arrived at our brand new Brooksville office and was being shown around by the editor there, I noticed that the office also smelled like ham salad. So did the picadillo I had for lunch at Mykonos restaurant, where I am pretty sure they don’t serve—or need to serve—ham salad. And, when I got home, so did the handful of normally pungent Canoe cologne I poured into my palm.
It turns out, I can’t smell anything, which I thought meant that perhaps ham salad is the default odor in the aging, wheezing computer that is my brain, but things had gone worse the following day when I smelled, instead, mashed potatoes.
The condition is called anosmia and could be caused by any one of several different factors, some of them grim, but most likely stems from a whopping cold I had the week before.
I don’t ignore serious symptoms, but I also am aware that I am every physician’s worst nightmare—a hypochondriac with some basic medical training, his own copies of Merck’s Manual and Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, plus an active imagination.
All the medical sources I have consulted tell me that the symptom will either go away—or it won’t—and that not a lot can be done in the meanwhile. I do have regular appointments with an ear, nose and throat specialist, and if it persists I will talk to him about it.
In the meanwhile, this is the first time in my life I haven't been able to smell. Even with head colds before, I could smell some things, like menthol, but there is just nothing there this time.
I’ve tried onions, ammonia, pepper, rubbing alcohol and coffee, all strong odors for me, and except for a little twinge with the ammonia—nothing.
Trying to adopt a positive attitude, I do note some things about anosmia.
It makes it easier to be around smokers, although they still seem to use up more than their share of oxygen.
It makes it much easier to scoop out the cats’ litter box, even after a weekend away.
It affects taste, so dieting is easier and my wife’s cooking seems better.
If it doesn’t get better, eventually, I will be able to save money on deodorant and cologne.
There is also a down side:
I want people to quit telling me to stop and smell the roses or to wake up and smell the coffee.
I want potential news sources to stop asking me if I think something smells fishy about local, state or national government’s latest foibles.
I have had to learn to keep the Pine-sol and shampoo bottles widely separated on the shelf in the shower.
I wish I had not just blown nearly $50 on eucalyptus-scented bath salts at Bed Bath & Beyond.
And, finally, I am now completely obsessive about checking the batteries in the smoke alarms.
As I noticed while straining to hear what passed for dialogue in a movie the other night (it was a John Travolta movie, so don’t ask me why I bothered) the age-related leave-taking of some of my senses is proceeding pretty much as expected.
I am, as some of my older friends put it, only 59, but, like cars, you have to check the odometer as well as the date on the title.
I used to lie on the floor in front of the television set to avoid having to wear my glasses, but had to quit because my wife complained that my nose was leaving smudge-marks on the screen.
I still hold that my hearing is fine—if everyone else on earth would just stop mumbling.
I’ve lost so many taste buds that I no longer care (or can tell if my glasses are off) whether a pot-pie is chicken, beef, turkey or road tar.
And now my smell is so bad I can’t find a Zephyrhills dairy or chicken farm without a map.
Even if you can’t smell, taste or clearly see it, the cliche still holds true. If life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade—so I’m headed to Tampa to buy some silk underwear while I can still feel them.
The Pantagraph (Bloomington, IL)
April 20, 2003
Our sense of smell leads us by the nose as we decide what we hold dear. Profile of the nose
By Kate Arthur
Gabrielle Glaser spent hours of her life in junior high holding the skin of her cheek away from her nose so it would appear smaller in profile.
Ever since she caught a side view in a photo of her and her brother at the age of 12, she’d been self-conscious about her triangular nose.
In her small Oregon town, her Scandinavian-American classmates stood out because of their height and blondness. She stood out because of her Jewish/Native American nose.
Not that it didn’t serve her well. Glaser had an extraordinary sense of smell that could detect when the creek was going to rise, based on the dampness in the air.
But colds others would wave off turned into serious infections for her and she endured five sinus surgeries. One left her sinuses so scarred that she lost her sense of smell for two years, robbing her of the scent of her three daughters, fresh-cut grass and summer rain on a hot sidewalk.
“I was miserable,” she said. “It was like looking at slick photographs of my life in a magazine, instead of in 3-D.”
The Portland, Ore., writer spent three years probing the role of the nose, a journey that took her from Madison Avenue perfume counters to research labs and offices of plastic surgeons. The result was, “The Nose: A Profile of Sex, Beauty and Survival” (Atria Books, 2002).
What Glaser discovered was that our sense of smell is vastly unappreciated. Our nose can warn us of danger, play into mate selection and evoke powerful memories. (Take a whiff of a jar of Vicks VapoRub or canister of Play-Doh if you’re not convinced.)
Humans can detect up to 10,000 different smells, and yet it’s hard to describe them. Try telling someone how peanut butter smells. What you’re more likely to do is mention the smooth, creamy texture or nutty flavor. It’s possible, researchers told Glaser, that the areas of the brain responsible for language and odors compete.
Smells are picked up by receptors within the nose—some 5 million of them. Some are better at responding to dirty socks, others, the yeast in freshly baked bread.
Our ancestors relied on their noses to sniff out danger and we can too, Glaser said. She tells the story of the day she decided to move away from a man on a nearly empty train from Baltimore to New York. An hour later, he raped a woman in the bathroom.
She might have been tipped off by her vomeronasal organ, a pea-sized cavity in the nasal septum that’s been called the body’s sixth sense.
Glaser dips into history, tracing our sense of smell through civilizations. Egyptians tried to mask body odor by wadding up balls of pine resin and placing them under their arms.
American Indians were frequent bathers but the early settlers thought once a year was enough. The Saturday night bath didn’t gain in popularity until the 19th century, when Americans scrubbed up to prevent the spread of disease. After indoor plumbing came along in the 1920s, kids were cleaner than they ever wanted to be.
The nose has been vastly misunderstood, Glaser says, being linked to everything from personality to sexuality. Sigmund Freud believed nasal surgery would solve menstrual problems. In the 1950s, doctors thought allergies and asthma were triggered by frustration and psychological problems.
There’s growing evidence that our sense of smell plays a part in sexual attraction, she said. Scent ranked above appearance in a recent study that asked women what made a man attractive enough to consider sleeping with.
In another study, women were handed men’s sweaty T-shirts and asked to rate them in terms of intensity, sexiness and pleasantness. Three were from men with similar genetic factors and three weren’t.
The women found the odors of men who were dissimilar more pleasant, which could mean we’re supposed to choose mates who differ genetically in order to boost our offspring’s chance of survival.
Scent is often considered the most powerful link to memory, Glaser said, stirring more emotions than photos or music. Consider a former lover’s perfume.
Certain odors also may affect our moods. In the mornings, Japanese companies circulate the smell of lemon through air-conditioning systems to help workers stay focused. By afternoon, it’s switched to cedar to boost energy levels.
Not everyone has a sense of smell and among the 4 million to 16 million Americans who suffer from anosmia, a loss of smell, it can be devastating. Since 90 percent of what we taste comes from the smell, many lose their appetite. Depression isn’t uncommon.
As a sinus sufferer, Glaser devotes a chapter to chronic sinusitis, which affects about one in seven Americans. No one knows for sure what the sinuses do, she said, but they may control the temperature and humidity of the air before it enters the lungs.
While we’re concerned with what we can smell, we’re also preoccupied with how we smell. Americans spend about $3 billion a year on deodorants and $6 billion on perfumes.
Maybe we have Marilyn Monroe to thank for all the little glass bottles on bedroom dressers. Chanel No. 5, the first synthetic scent, became a hit after Marilyn Monroe told a reporter it was all she wore to bed.
Women’s fascination with perfume took off in the ’50s but it was a decade later before men started dabbing on Hai Karate.
Aromatherapy kicked in as a household word in the ’90s, backed by studies such as the one from New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, which found the vanilla fragrance of heliotrope significantly reduced a patient’s anxiety before undergoing an MRI scan.
As for Glaser, she’s accepted her nose, even though her medicine cabinet is still crowded with antibiotics, decongestants and steroids.
She tells her three girls, one of whom has her nose, that beauty takes all forms.
“But it’s easier to see that today than it was 30 years ago,” she said.
The facts right in front of our face:
* Each person has an odor as individual as a fingerprint and each nostril detects odors differently.
* Women at any age are usually more accurate than men in identifying odors.
* Age takes a much greater toll on smell than tastes.
* Humans can detect up to 10,000 different odors. We have about 5 million olfactory receptor cells, as many as a mouse. A rat has about 10 million, a rabbit 20 million and a bloodhound, as many as 220 million.
* Certain medications can inhibit smell and taste, but others, such as antihistamines, may improve it.
* Smell is believed to be the most highly developed sense at birth. Babies recognize their mothers’ milk and can be calmed by a piece of their mothers’ clothing.
* Anosmia, an inability to detect odors, affects from 4 million to 16 million Americans. It can occur after a virus, sinusitis, years of smoking or a head injury. People with certain neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s, may suffer from a loss of smell.
* The reason dogs pick up scents along the ground is because odor molecules are heavy and the higher you go, the fewer there are.
* Researchers in Miami found that adults who sniffed lavender before and after tackling simple math problems worked faster, felt more relaxed and made fewer mistakes than those exposed to other odors.
* In a small British study, elderly insomniacs who sniffed lavender before going to bed fell asleep sooner and stayed asleep longer than those using sedatives.
* Harsh chemicals, such as those found in manufacturing environments, can impair our sense of smell.
* Dairy and livestock farmers may lose some of their sense of smell from exposure to urine and manure gases.
* Smell can affect our mood. At London’s Heathrow Airport, the scent of pine is sprayed throughout the terminals to keep passengers at ease.
* The average adult has between 3 and 4 million sweat glands, capable of producing four gallons of fluid a day.
* Sweat is odorless. The fluid is nearly 99 percent water. The odor comes from the bacteria on the skin’s surface.
* Body odors differ among cultures and race and are influenced by genes, environment and diet.
* Body odor in Japan used to be considered a sign of poor genes and character. It immediately disqualified you from the military services.
* Butyric acid in butter and other dairy foods makes Americans and Europeans reek to Asians, who eat no milk products.
* The first deodorant, a thick, waxy zinc oxide cream, was created by a Philadelphia doctor in 1888. Early deodorants were so caustic that they stung and ate through clothing.
* The ball point pen, using a ball bearing, gave Proctor & Gamble Co. the idea for a roll-on deodorant. Enter Ban in 1952.
* The cardiologist who designed the stethoscope did so to avoid an assault on the nose. Heart problems used to be diagnosed by laying an ear to the chest.
MX (Melbourne, Australia)
May 8, 2003
Sniff Out Cancer
Italian scientists have developed an electronic nose that can detect lung cancer by smelling distinctive compounds in the breath of patients.
The University of Rome researchers believe the device could form the basis of a simple test to diagnose the illness.
“Carrado Di Natale, the electronics expert developing the e-nose, says doctors might one day use a hypersensitive version of the device to screen smokers and other high-risk groups for lung cancer as part of a routine check-up,” New Scientist magazine reported today.
An electronic nose with eight quartz crystal sensors correctly and quickly identified the 35 patients with large lung tumours in a test on 60 people at Rome’s Forianini Hospital.
People with lung cancer breathe out a variety of alkanes and benzene derivatives, the magazine reported.
Di Natale and his team said they would have to improve the sensitivity of the nose before it would be able to sniff out lung cancer in its earliest stages.
Meanwhile, British research ers have shown that high-dose chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant together are far more effective against the bone cancer multiple myeloma than standard chemotherapy.
Patients in the eight year study who got the more intensive treatment generally survived a year longer.
National Post (Canada)
May 8, 2003
E-nose knows how to detect cancer: Doctors also hope dogs may be trained to give early warning
By Mary Vallis
Scientists worldwide hope to use human scent to detect cancer.
A team at the University of Rome has created an “electronic nose” that can identify people with lung tumours by simply “sniffing” their breath.
The experimental device works much like the high-tech hygiene gadgets used in the food industry to detect chemicals released by rotting ingredients.
The electronic nose for lung cancer uses eight specially coated quartz crystal sensors to detect a signature cocktail of alkanes and benzene derivatives exhaled by people with the disease, the periodical New Scientist reports in its latest edition.
The researchers tested the device on 60 people, 35 of whom were waiting for operations to remove lung tumours. The nose identified every cancer patient; each test took a little more than a minute. They are now working to boost the device’s sensitivity so it can detect tumours even earlier.
Carrado Di Natale, the electronics expert helping to develop the technology, suggested a hypersensitive version could one day be used to screen smokers for lung cancer during routine checkups. The technology could also become so simple that patients could use it at home after having surgery to remove tumours, he said.
“It would be less accurate than broncoscopy, but it would be so much easier,” he said.
The Italian team is not alone in finding ways to smell cancer. Researchers at Cambridge University in England hope to train dogs to sniff out cancer cells in urine samples.
If the project gets funding and is successful, a dog’s keen sense of smell could prove a better early-warning system for some cancers than modern science, they say.
“Cancer cells produce different chemicals and, therefore, are likely to have different odours,” said David Broom, a professor of animal welfare at Cambridge Veterinary School. “Our idea is to see whether we can identify serious cases.”
Three dogs—Chip, an Alsatian; Tarn, a black Labrador; and Bliss, a yellow Lab—are already in training. The researchers awaiting $335,000 in funding before they expand the project.
Dubbed “dognoseis,” the phenomenon of dogs detecting cancer has already been documented. According to at least two reports in The Lancet, a British medical journal, people were prompted have sought medical attention after their pets showed an unwavering interest at moles or lesions on their skin.
In one case, Parker, a pet Labrador, constantly pressed his nose against his owner’s pants in the same spot. The skin in that area was later deemed cancerous and removed. Parker then lost interest in sniffing his owner’s leg.
The Associated Press
May 13, 2003
New technology could help law enforcement, health workers, others
A New Mexico Tech scientist has come up with an electronic nose that promises to be useful in law enforcement, public health and pollution monitoring.
New Mexico Tech engineer Thompson Sarkodie-Gyan has built an analyzer that can detect odorless substances and tell the operator how much exists.
“This is a type of vapor analyzer that simulates the human olfactory response. It can automatically detect and classify vapors,” Sarkodie-Gyan said.
Researchers have been calibrating the prototype to detect gases such as methanol, propane, heptane and hexane.
“We’d like to work with people in chemistry and environmentalists to tune it even more for their specific needs,” Sarkodie-Gyan said.
Sarkodie-Gyan eventually wants to reduce the device to a handheld size that would cost $250 to $500 each.
He would like the technology used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and wants to calibrate it for other uses, such as detecting drugs or explosives in airports or detecting disease.
“Medical technology was actually the first use I thought of for this,” Sarkodie-Gyan said. “I thought, if somebody had lung problems and breathed out, maybe their breath would have signs of contamination that would be different than a healthy person.
“I shifted to other uses, though, because I didn’t have anyone from the medical community to work with, and I had a lot of input from chemists.”
He developed the $1,500 prototype over the past two years with students Deepa Balasubramanian, Rebecca Evans and Mary Irwin.
They calibrated the first version to detect petroleum gases because those are easy to find and are a problem at many New Mexico Superfund sites, Sarkodie-Gyan said.
“So far we’ve had very good results. ... In my conservative opinion, I don’t think any other sensing instrument can do that right now as accurately or as cheaply as this can,” he said.
He said he’s been fascinated by such technology since he first heard of it in 1996.
The technology uses small balanced scales made of quartz crystals coated with a chemical that acts like fly paper for specific gases. The gases stick and shift the weight on the quartz, which tells the electronic nose how much gas is present.
“For now we’ve only tested it on one type of gas at a time,” Sarkodie-Gyan said. “What we’d like to do in the near future is to mix three gases in a proportion and let our instrument tell us the proportion of those gases.”
Sarkodie-Gyan has discussed possible uses for the technology with Tech geochemistry professor David Norman.
“This thing could be very nice to help us find contaminated areas and map them out so we can protect people from arsenic and other dangerous chemicals,” said Norman, who has worked in Ghana, Africa, to help tribes and the government find areas contaminated with large amounts of naturally occurring arsenic. Many African soils have up to 1 percent arsenic, about a million times the U.S. drinking water standard, which often poisons children, he said.
Many other places have severe arsenic problems.
“This could be great for people in rural areas to improve their quality of life,” Norman said.
Norman said he hopes to work with Sarkodie-Gyan this summer to calibrate the machine for arsenic so he can take it with him next time he goes to Ghana.
“I think one of the most fascinating aspects of this is that it can help us environmentally and keep us away from contaminated sources,” Sarkodie-Gyan said. “In today’s world there are so many places where radioactive and other types of waste are buried or dumped. This can help us cheaply monitor that so we can advise the population and help to protect people.”
Research Shows Olfactory Dysfunction Impacts Quality of Life
New York, NY, 5/15/2003
In a recent White Paper commissioned by the Sense of Smell Institute, researchers Thomas Hummel, MD and Steven Nordin, PhD, at the University of Dresden Medical School, reported that a diminished, or complete loss of the sense of smell results in a corresponding loss of quality of life.
Hummel and Nordin reviewed numerous research studies on the topic that have been scattered throughout scientific literature and provide a concise overview of the many facets of this important topic. The White Paper discusses how the sense of smell works, defines the various olfactory disorders and describes the situations that lead to smell loss and some clinical approaches to the loss of the olfactory sense. In addition, the authors explore the issues resulting from this disorder that severely impact quality of life.
With the onset of olfactory dysfunction, it is not just that it becomes difficult to differentiate between our favorite fragrances or water and gin, but also a sense is lost that alerts us to dangers from spoiled food, leaking gas, smoke and fire. It appears however, that the ability to savor what we eat or drink and the enjoyment of the smell of flowers and lovely fragrances, along with the mundane aromas we encounter in every day life are what is most dearly missed when the sense of smell is impaired or lost.
It is estimated that a complete loss of the sense of smell is found in at least 1% of the U.S. population. In a recent study of individuals aged 53-97, 24% were found to have an impaired sense of smell. In addition, each year hundreds of thousands of patients complain to their physicians about taste and smell problems. The number of documented cases of smell problems, however, is thought to be under reported because people often don’t take it seriously enough to see a physician with their problem because they can still function and go to work.
Three major causes (other than aging) account for 60% of the people who have lost their sense of smell. These are:
* Head injury—a sharp blow to the forehead can sever the olfactory nerves. (football players and boxers, for example often report loss of their sense of smell) * Infection—an infection of the upper respiratory tract or a bad case of the flu * Sino-nasal disease—or example chronic sinus infection or growth of polyps in the nasal passages.
Other causes include Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, congenital anosmia, and exposure to toxic substances. For about 20% of the cases of olfactory loss the cause cannot be identified.
Most people do not recognize the value of the sense of smell until it has been lost. While our ability to smell is important as a warning system that alerts us to harmful fumes and spoiled food, its loss is mostly expressed in a severe decrease in quality of life. For this measure, Hummel and Nordin acquaint us with a number of new psychological tests developed in the last 10 years for the measurement of olfactory function on the quality of life. The results of these tests exhibit a high degree of similarity in that a large percentage of patients report being in a state of general depression or feel impairment in their quality of life due to their loss of the ability to smell.
For a copy of the complete White Paper, “Quality of life in olfactory dysfunction” by Thomas Hummel, MD and Steven Nordin, PhD, please contact Terry Molnar via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Los Angeles Times
May 19, 2003
The scent of an illness; A device that identifies chemical ‘signatures’ is being used to diagnose diseases.
By Jane E. Allen
Just as the human nose interprets a whiff of smoke as a warning of fire, electronic noses can detect the unique “scent signatures” of diseases, from bacterial infections to lung cancer.
Consisting of arrays of chemical sensors, these high-tech noses distinguish the breath, urine and blood of the sick from those of the healthy. Most devices are still in the experimental stages, with some being tested on patients with suspected pneumonia and other lung diseases, sinus infections, diabetes and cancer. The technology could screen and diagnose diseases and monitor any recurrence right in the doctor’s office or at the patient’s bedside.
“What you’re seeing is the emergence of the technology to be a diagnostic tool,” said Steve Sunshine, chief executive of Cyrano Sciences in Pasadena, which makes an electronic nose undergoing tests at several medical centers.
The practice of diagnosing illness through breath smells dates at least to Roman times, when doctors called the musky breath of liver failure patients fetor hepaticus. Doctors today liken the distinctive breath of diabetics with dangerously high blood sugar to the scent of a popular brand of chewing gum.
In the last few decades, scientists worldwide have been developing ways to detect the chemical signatures of food spoilage, pollution and biological attacks, and several teams have been zeroing in on medical applications. Because diseases create distinct changes in the gases we exhale and in the gases emitted by bacteria infecting our blood and urine, electronic noses can be programmed to sense their chemical signatures.
So far, only one electronic nose has been approved in this country for commercial use. In November 2001, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Osmetech of Crewe, England, could market the Osmetech Microbial Analyser for detecting the urinary tract infections that plague millions of Americans each year. The device, based on technology developed at the University of Manchester, analyzes gases from bacteria in urine within hours; bacterial cultures take days.
In January of this year, Osmetech announced that the device had also been approved for diagnosis of bacterial vaginosis. Using vaginal fluids, it distinguishes bacterial vaginosis, an infection linked to miscarriage and premature delivery, from other common vaginal infections.
A team of Caltech researchers was among pioneers of electronic noses. Its device uses chemical sensors made of special polymers, which change electrical resistance when they come into contact with gases. Computers identify the gases by the patterns of electrical changes. The team has formed Cyrano Sciences Inc., which pairs chemical sensing and interpretation in an $8,000 device dubbed Cyranose, named after Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the 1897 play about a character with an enormous nose. Sunshine said his company is about a year from seeking FDA approval to market its device for medical purposes.
On Sunday, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic reported at the American Thoracic Society meeting in Seattle that the Cyranose had differentiated the breath of 14 lung cancer patients from that of 20 healthy people and 25 patients with other lung ailments. (Their presentation followed a May 10 report in New Scientist magazine that an electronic nose developed at the University of Rome accurately picked out 35 cases of lung cancer from among a group of 60 hospital patients and was easier on patients than bronchoscopy, which involves inserting a lighted tube into the lungs).
Electronic noses have also shown great promise in screening for pneumonia. Last November, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania reported that Cyranose accurately and quickly detected pneumonia cases when used on 415 critical-care patients on ventilators. The device speeds treatment by distinguishing quickly between viral or bacterial pneumonia.
“It will save money by preventing unnecessary prescription of antibiotics and by catching the disease earlier in its course,” said lead author Dr. C. William Hanson III, a Penn anesthesia professor who said he foresees using the device more widely in a year or two. He said Cyranose could reduce unnecessary antibiotic use that contributes to resistance.
In other studies, Dr. Erica Thaler, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Penn, has used Cyranose to pinpoint which cases of sinusitis require antibiotics. She also has found that the device can distinguish between drainage of normal nasal fluids and the dangerous leakage of spinal fluid, which requires immediate attention.
Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)
August 6, 2003
Smellbound; Fume to Perfume, We’re Led Around by Our Noses
By Cynthia McMullen
When people ask which sense you’d keep if you could keep only one, smell rarely comes up.
After all, who’d voluntarily give up their ability to see or hear? But smell ... who cares?
People who lose their sense of smell care a lot. Anosmia, the loss or impairment of the sense of smell, can occur with aging or illness. Sometimes it’s temporary, as with colds or allergies.
If the loss is permanent, as a result of more serious disorders or conditions, taste may be affected, too. Sometimes people lose interest in eating, and dietary counseling is required.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health recommend that such patients take extra safety precautions, such as installing more smoke detectors and using electric rather than gas appliances.
Losing your sense of smell wouldn’t be a picnic. Oh, occasionally it might be a blessing ... if your brother, for instance, enjoyed inflicting his more-than-passing interest in gas on you. Otherwise, how dull it would be.
What if somebody said you’d never again enjoy the fragrance of a newly blooming rose, a hot-from-the-oven cookie, a freshly powdered baby?
People spend billions of dollars annually on scents and aromas, delicious items smelling of flowers and fruit and promising to enhance their lives. Scents designed to attract the opposite sex, for instance, range from wildly inexpensive (dab a drop of vanilla behind your ear) to that’s-just-nuts exorbitant (Clive Christian’s No. 1 perfume, which costs $1,820 an ounce. Now available at Nordstrom online!)
Those same people (you and me, that is) spend billions more on items created to cover up unpleasant odors.
Have you strolled down the air-freshener aisle lately? The variety, if not the aggregate odor, makes your head spin.
Attempts to mask odors such as tobacco, used cat litter and fish have spawned thousands of products, not to mention sizable profits. According to Packaged Facts, which conducts consumer market research, sales in home fragrances alone—in this country alone—are expected to top $3.4 billion by 2006.
Allergies and strong-odor sensitivities be hanged (though even the hardiest noses can have trouble perusing a perfume-infested Vanity Fair magazine. We’re a nation of smell-gooders.
Some products do go the second mile, seeking to eliminate odors. For example, Klean Air Inc. of Urbandale, Iowa, designed Odorgon F (the F stands for “farm”) to drastically reduce offal hog-barn odors.
In a world gone wild for fragrance, aromatherapy had to happen. The Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy in Tampa, Fla., defines the practice as “the inhalation and application of volatile essential oils from aromatic plants to restore or enhance health, beauty and well-being.”
AromaLand, one of hundreds of Web sites that market aromatherapy products, goes a bit further: “Our mission is to take you to the Land of Aroma, a place where you can be yourself, in harmony with Nature, enriched by its beauty. A place of well-being - where your spirit soars ... your mind unwinds ... your body communes with Nature.”
Well, sure, the Land of Aroma is everybody’s favorite destination. But once you have the candles and oils and soaps and lotions ... aromachology, anyone?
In October, “The Global Symposium: Well-Being, Aromachology and the Future of Fragrance” took place in Paris.
Aromachology is exactly as it sounds. The Olfactory Research Fund, an independent charitable organization, came up with the idea, studying the effect of scents on mood and behavior, about 20 years ago.
Recent ORF studies found that a lemon smell, for example, can serve as a mental stimulant and might be put to good use helping to reduce errors in the workplace. (Hmm. Is it me, or do those air-conditioning ducts smell lemony fresh?)
In fact, it doesn’t take research to prove that a sensitive proboscis can improve one’s quality of life (Stop and smell those roses), whet an appetite (Ahh, brownies!), relieve stress (Light that vanilla candle now) or bring back vivid memories (That musty-cellar smell might not be lovely, but doesn’t it take you back to Grandma’s basement?).
Children seem to have a special relationship with odors, perhaps because they’re experiencing them for the first time.
Who hasn’t delighted in seeing a child wrinkle up his nose at the smell of a barnyard or dive into a blooming posy—nostrils first, inhaling hard—as if to divest the thing of its fragrance?
In their book “Science Fair Success With Scents, Aromas and Smells,” Thomas and Leah Rybolt suggest wonderful olfactory projects for kids: examining how food odors change as it spoils, testing to see if scents remind people of their past, exploring how chocolate, peppermint and vanilla odors influence people’s moods, testing Odor Eaters on smelly socks, seeing whether an air freshener can cover the smell of spoiled milk.
Why is it that our tolerance for foul odors seems to decrease as we age? Little boys couldn’t be happier than when left to their own devices, smelling up a room, accusing one another of, er, gaseous indiscretion.
Bad example. That makes big boys happy, too.
Speaking of gender, probably the biggest buzzword in the world of scents—next to aromatherapy—is pheromone.
You’ve seen the ads.
“Human Euphoria: Attract the opposite sex like magic! Become more sexually active. Get approached more often. Improve business relationships. Increase your self-confidence.”
Human Euphoria’s marketers define pheromones as “naturally occurring chemicals that send out subconscious scent signals ... that trigger very powerful sexual responses.”
According to the company, 74 percent of the people it tested experienced an increase in hugging, kissing and sexual intercourse.
Not “or.” “And.” Pretty bold claims. Of course, not everyone can afford “natural aphrodisiacs” such as this one, which costs $39.95 for a 1/2-ounce bottle.
Depending on whether you drench or dab, $39.95 is a whole lot of dough compared with the couple of bucks you’d spend on a bottle of vanilla or a bar of fresh soap. Then again, it’s some $1,700 cheaper than Clive Christian’s No. 1.
Sometimes what the nose knows simply comes down to dollars and scents.
The Jerusalem Post
August 14, 2003
No two noses are alike, study finds
By Judy Siegel
Weizmann Institute researchers have finally discovered why the saying “there’s no accounting for taste” is true.
A team headed by Prof. Doron Lancet of the molecular genetics department at the Rehovot institute found that some of the 1,000 genes responsible for the nose’s odor-detecting receptors can be optional, causing some ethnic groups to smell what others cannot. And since the sense of smell is largely responsible for the sense of taste, this can affect flavor perception as well.
It has been known for some time that the human genome comprises 1,000 genes that code for the nose’s odor-detecting receptors. Of these, more than half have become totally inactive in humans. But now Lancet’s team have published a study in Nature Genetics showing that at least 50 genes are “optional”—they can be active in some individuals and inactive in others. This high level of genetic variation among individuals is most unusual.
A simple calculation, based on the new findings, shows that nearly every human being would display a different pattern of active/inactive receptors—an individualized genetic bar code. The uncovered genetic heterogeneity affects the way thousands of aromas and flavors are perceived. The Weizmann team demonstrated that the level of obliteration of olfactory receptors varies among different ethnic groups.
The novel discovery, says Lancet, has profound implications for the way the perfume, food, and beverage industries handle the discovery of new aroma, flavor, and fragrance ingredients. Usually one person, or a small test panel, makes sensory decisions taken to represent billions of customers. But since every nose is different, the industry might rethink such issues. The investigators believe that soon a DNA chip could be used to perform olfactory genetics typing of panels and target audiences alike. Thus, cosmetics and foodstuff design would be revolutionized in much the same way that the drug industry now seriously contemplates developing tailor-made medications based on the breakthroughs of pharmacogenetics.
The Early Show – CBS
September 18, 2003
Dogs trained to sniff out human ailments such as epilepsy and cancer
HANNAH STORM, co-host:
Dogs and their keen sense of smell have a long history of helping humans. But now what a dog’s nose actually knows is more impressive than ever. EARLY SHOW contributor Debbye Turner explains in today’s Pet Planet.
DEBBYE TURNER reporting:
This is amazing. It is so stinking cool, I can hardly stand it, you know, that man’s best friend doesn’t quite cover the value that dogs bring to human beings. Now there’s evidence that their unique sensory ability can help detect human illness.
TURNER: Carol Folwell of Tarpon Springs, Florida, has suffered from epileptic seizures for more than 30 years.
Ms. FOLWELL: They’re grand mal seizures. Used to be I would fall a lot and hurt myself. And it was hard to go anyplace because you were really afraid to go by yourself for fear you would have a seizure.
TURNER: But thanks to the special talents of her service dog, Lindsay, life has changed for Carol. Lindsay has the uncanny ability to detect her seizures before they happen.
Ms. FOLWELL: She comes to me and…tries to push at me or pull at me. It’s like she just knows something’s going to happen.
TURNER: And she’s trained to help Carol prepare for her seizures and minimize her discomfort.
Ms. FOLWELL: There’s time enough for her to get my medicine and the water, and if I need her to get the phone... If I feel I’m gonna need to call someone, she can get the receiver for me and bring it to me. It gives me enough time to do those things before the seizure usually starts.
Unidentified Man #2: This—yeah, this is puppy boot camp, and this is the obstacle course.
TURNER: Lindsay was trained here at Canine Assistants in Alpharetta, Georgia.
Ms. JENNIFER ARNOLD (Canine Assistants): We teach the dogs to behave in a certain way when a recipient has a seizure, to goes for help, to stay with that person.
TURNER: Is there any way to train a dog to detect an upcoming seizure?
Ms. ARNOLD: There really isn’t.
Unidentified Woman #1: Ivy, get help.
Ms. ARNOLD: We don’t know to what stimuli the dogs are responding. Most of our dogs do develop the ability to anticipate onset within the first year of service.
Unidentified Woman #2: Does she need help?
TURNER: Graduates of Canine Assistants are able to help people with a wide variety of disabilities. What they do is amazing.
Unidentified Woman #3: Get your cane.
TURNER: How they do it is being investigated.
Mr. JIM WALKER (Florida State University): It’s been a while since he’s been in there testing.
TURNER: Jim Walker of Florida State University is researching a dog’s ability to sniff out diseases like cancer. One theory is that dogs can smell chemical changes in a sick person.
Mr. WALKER: His job is to tell us which location has the target chemical. Dogs are 10 to 100,000 times more sensitive than people to this particular chemical.
TURNER: The hope is that there will be many more success stories like Carol and Lindsay.
Ms. FOLWELL: I don’t even know how I lived the life that I lived before I had her. It’s just a new way of life for me totally.
TURNER: Wow, just amazing. Dogs are so good at this kind of work because they are particularly receptive to being trained. The trick is to find out what they’re sensing in epilepsy or cancer. We still don’t know that yet.
Newsday (New York)
October 7, 2003
Loss of Taste And Smell Has Many Causes
By Dr. Allen Douma
Q: I am writing to see if I can get any help for my 93-year-old father, who has a bitter taste in his mouth and can’t eat anything salty or sweet. We’ve been to several doctors, and none has been able to help. He’s had an MRI of his brain and sinuses, which showed nothing to indicate a problem.
But he has lost 20 pounds and it’s heartbreaking to see him unable to enjoy his food or get the nutrition he needs. Thank you. - E.K.
A: Impairment of taste and smell is a disorder that affects approximately 2 percent of North Americans. It can be frustrating, because it disrupts the ability to enjoy food, drink and aroma. But more dangerously, disruption of taste and smell can interfere with the ability to discern spoiled food, toxic chemicals, gases or smoke.
To distinguish most flavors, the brain needs “input” from the chemical receptors for both taste and smell, which are closely related. Except for the tongue’s ability to differentiate salt, bitter, sour and sweet, true flavor is identified through the nose.
Loss of the sense of taste is known as ageusia and distorted sense of taste is dysgeusia. Air containing a chemical odor must travel through the nose to reach olfactory receptors located in the mucous membranes behind the bridge of the nose. These receptors identify an odor and transmit the information to the brain. Disruption of that transmission can cause absence of a sense of smell (anosmia) or diminished sense of smell (hyposmia).
Anything that hinders the journey of the electrical impulse from the odor receptors in the nose to the brain or the taste receptors on the tongue to the brain can affect taste and smell. There are many causes for this.
Taste dysfunction (dysgeusia) can be caused by damage to any part of the nerve pathway, from the taste buds to the brain. That damage can be the result of other disorders (strokes, Bell’s palsy or depression), trauma (for example, head injury), heavy smoking (especially pipe), and some drugs. A dry mouth can also cause injury to taste buds.
Many drugs and toxic chemicals also can impair or distort taste and smell by affecting the action of the receptors. Viral infections often cause immediate changes in taste and smell, but they may also cause problems long after the acute infection. The bad news is in most cases of dysgeusia the cause is not determined and there is no effective treatment. The good news is that sometimes the senses return to normal without treatment.
In one recent study, two-thirds of patients with dysgeusia experienced spontaneous resolution of the disorder, with an average duration of 10 months. Otherwise, treatment means detective work, followed by treating systemic diseases and stopping drugs or behavior that contribute to the problem. Consider seeing an ear, nose and throat doctor or a neurologist.
November 24, 2003
Medical science steps in when sense of smell is lost
By Ron Wolfe
Smelling disorders range from anosmia, no smell at all, to hyperosmia, too much. In between are such troubles as phantosmia, smelling things that aren’t there.
Dr. Bryan Leatherman studies and treats these conditions as assistant professor of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center.
A few people are born with little or no sense of smell, he says. Some lose the ability so gradually, they are slow to realize the loss.
Unlike bad hearing, a weak sense of smell is not so apparent to people around you. No one is likely to mention that you aren’t smelling everything you should.
But those with a serious loss of smell generally know “other people are sensing something they don’t,” he says.
A tumor is the big fear, but true in only “a very small percentage” of cases, Leatherman says. Allergy is a common cause. “Some people had a cold with a stopped-up nose, and their sense of smell never came back,” he says.
The doctor looks for obstructions that can be cleared up with medicine, like a sinus infection, or with surgery, such as polyps. Cases that resist treatment may call for higher technology, including sinus and brain scans.
But nature still keeps secrets about the sense of smell, and there are noses that just plain don’t work.
The last measure is counseling, Leatherman says—teaching how to live without smell.
“One thing is, they must have smoke detectors in the house, because they won’t be able to smell smoke,” he says.
And a tough prescription to fill: They need honest and fearless friends.
Know any? – the kind who will speak up when your deodorant isn’t working, and say so when your perfume smells like kerosene.
The Baltimore Sun
December 14, 2003
The Unknowing Nose; With no ability to smell, an anosmic has difficulty making scents of the world
By Tom Dunkel
Go to amazon.com, call up a scratch-and-sniff book titled The Sweet Smell of Christmas and you’ll find 55 out of 56 customer reviewers give it a five-star rating.
Not bad for a book that’s short on plot but long on snootfuls of chemically contrived hot cocoa and candy canes. “There are certain things in childhood that change the way you view the world as an adult,” gushes reviewer Allegra M. Meis. “The Sweet Smell of Christmas is one of those things.”
To which I say ... Bah! Humsmell!
Several million Americans probably share that sentiment. Several million people like me who have no sense of smell. Several million noses that are no more functional than the hood ornament on an old DeSoto.
The medical term for the condition is “anosmia.” Those afflicted are anosmics, though, no surprise, some of us prefer to be known simply as Nozzies.
We’re a breed apart from the mass of humanity that’s been blessed with properly wired, sugar-plum-shaped olfactory lobes; from the “Olfies” of the world.
Olfies rule. They enjoy a symphony of several thousand odors. They invented roll-on antiperspirant. They created the no-smoking section in restaurants. Oh, how they love to smell the ocean and new-mowed lawns.
For eleven months of the year Nozzies live at relative peace with their scent-deprived selves. Then Thanksgiving comes. Then Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s hit town.
Fresh-baked cookies. Cinnamon sticks. Mistletoe. Bayberry candles. Wool mittens warming by the radiator. Just-cut Christmas trees that trigger a tumble of childhood memories.
The holiday season is one big scent fest-and Nozzies don’t have admission tickets. It’s enough to make an anosmiac want to scour the city in search of something, anything, that can kick an underachieving nose into gear, if only for a nanosecond.
Just once, Santa, please come early and bring a special gift-a single, solitary Smell of Christmas. Some Olfie friends insist that Lexington Market is a must-smell. I pay a courtesy call, nosing around Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, Harbor City Bake Shoppe, Polack John’s Famous Polish Sausage and Berger’s Bakery.
I breathe deep. Again and again.
I might as well be hyperventilating in the plumbing-supplies aisle at Home Depot.
Being a reasonable person, I’m willing to lower the sweet-smell bar. What’s swamp gas to you, could be French perfume to me.
I make a beeline for the Baltimore Zoo.
Animal Programs Manager Amy Eveleth suggests a close encounter with the zoo’s foulest inhabitant: Marty the prehensile-tail porcupine.
Marty’s a mensch. He has a gentle disposition, a circus-clown pink nose and a coat of long, black-and-white quills that make him look like a cheerleader’s pompom.
Prehensile-tail porcupines live in the rainforests of South America, where they spend their time mostly lounging in tall trees. They rarely come in contact with water, let alone bathe. Stench is one of Marty’s defense mechanisms.
“I can smell him now,” says Eveleth as she unlocks his walk-in cage. “You don’t even have to be downwind.”
She describes the bouquet as musky, but “in a bad way.” Zoo spokesman Ben Gross likens it to spoiled meat with a hint of fraternity-house rankness.
I stick my face close enough to kiss Marty’s clown nose.
Nothing. I could eat raw prehensile-tail porcupine for lunch without so much as popping a breath mint.
I notice a piece of cardboard dangling from the top of the cage. Turns out it’s a makeshift air freshener, reminiscent of those teeny, pine-scented trees that Olfies like to hang in their cars. But pine doesn’t do it for Marty. He prefers having his cardboard slathered with Right Guard deodorant.
“His sense of smell is actually his best sense,” says Eveleth.
Can you taste? That’s the first question posed to people who can’t smell by people who can.
Nozzies who lose their sense of smell as a result of illness or head trauma frequently lose the ability to taste or, almost as wrenching, suddenly find all foods have the phantom flavor of, say, burnt toast.
Congenital anosmics such as myself generally fare better. Years ago I underwent a battery of tests at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. A nutritionist began by asking if I ever craved “nonfood items such as corn starch, plaster, dirt, clay or ice.”
(Hmm. Tempting as it may be to start the day with a nice, piping-hot bowl of plaster, it’s really not worth the hassle: You’ve got to eat so fast to keep your breakfast from hardening. )
At Monell I sniffed dozens of squeeze bottles filled with exotic odors. I drained paper cups brimming with sweet, sour and salty liquids. In the end a doctor pronounced my sense of taste relatively intact. However, he said my nose checked out “a couple of hundred times” less sensitive than normal-which is like having ears that can only hear blood-curdling screams.
Alas, my nose apparently was shortchanged on olfactory receptor cells. There’s no history of that in my family. I can’t recall when I first realized something was awry, that I was the only one who didn’t mind cleaning the cat box.
As handicaps go, anosmia’s certainly benign. Still, every Nozzie feels constant shivers of paranoia. I’ve left a chicken pot pie cooking in the oven all night long: 14 hours at 450 degrees. What if there’s ever a gas leak in the house? I have no idea if my clothes are crying out to be dry-cleaned. Are co-workers laughing because I’m especially witty today-or because I reek like a prehensile-tail porcupine?
The link between odor and memory is firmly established. We also know the accoutrements of romance-food, wine, flowers, perfume-are heavily fragrance-based. Nonetheless it was big news to me when a girlfriend mentioned lovers have a scent as distinctive as their fingerprints. That concept’s awfully hard to grasp when your nose can’t even get turned on by ammonia.
No wonder Nozzies grasp at therapeutic straws.
“People try all kinds of nasal douches and acupuncture and herbal medications,” says Richard Doty, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Smell and Taste Center.
I once went to see a Washington neurobiologist who specializes in lost-cause senses of smell. He believes the drug theophylline, widely used to treat asthma, can grow nasal receptor cells.
I had a $900 CAT scan. I dished out $1,500 for office visits. I popped pills for six months.
And thanks to Dr. Franken-nose I did briefly catch wind of something: the faint odor of money burning.
McCormick & Co. in Hunt Valley is best-known for making spices. Yet the bulk of its business involves jazzing up products ranging from perfume to barbecue sauce for other manufacturers.
McCormick has an on-site flavor lab that’s the perfect playground for an anosmic.
Marianne Gillette, director of product development, and Steve Ruocco, manager of flavor creation, take me under wing.
“You don’t smell anything in here?” asks Gillette. “It’s particularly aromatic today.”
A half-dozen glass vials are waiting on a tabletop. Each contains a highly concentrated food additive. I quickly sniff my way down the line to no avail-so Ruocco starts wheeling out the heavy artillery. First up, super-strength onion oil.
He and Gillette expect my knees to buckle, but I stand firm.
Next, a compound called furfuryl mercaptan: The Coffee Smell From Another Planet.
“It makes the blood rush to your head,” says Ruocco.
Not to mine.
Finally, Ruocco reaches for a vial of isovaleric acid. Imagine the distilled essence of a thousand high school gym lockers.
“If it gets on your skin, it will stay with you for weeks,” Ruocco warns.
I suck in a lung-full of isovaleric acid-and live to tell the tale.
It’s as if the Elephant Man has stopped by the flavor lab. “You’re a first for me,” says Ruocco, shaking his head.
As much as half the population between ages 65 and 80 has significant smell problems.
“The (olfactory) system peters out as you get old,” explains Barry Davis, director of the Taste and Smell Program at the National Institutes of Health. Given our graying baby-boomer population, Davis thinks smell loss may soon become a high-profile health issue.
Major research strides have been made in the past decade or so. For example, genes have been identified that carry the coding instructions for receptor cells inside the nose.
But the most intriguing question remains unanswered: Do people secrete the same invisible, scent-based chemical messengers, or pheromones, that dictate almost every behavior in animals and insects?
Scientists at the University of Maryland School of Medicine are on the case. I stop by their laboratory on West Baltimore Street. Lab director Frank Zufall wants to tell me about experiments he’s doing on the power of pheromones.
Through genetic engineering, Zufall has defused some of the pheromone-deciphering nasal receptors in a test group of mice. His so-called “knockout mice” are normal in every respect but their ability to smell.
“It’s almost like your anosmia,” says Zufall.
He plays a video for me. The clip opens with a pheromone-impaired mouse alone in a small cage. A second male mouse is placed inside. Normally a code-red pheromone alert would be sounded: Guys being guys, the first mouse would attack the intruder who’s invading his turf.
But that’s not how Zufall’s mutant-nose mouse responds. Instead of fighting his intruder, he tries to mount him.
“That was completely unexpected,” Zufall admits. He goes on to say he believes pheromones play some kind of role in human behavior.
The odds may be slim, but suppose we discover that the natural world is an organic radio tower, continually broadcasting pheromonic signals that affect the entire animal kingdom, top to bottom. That would mean anosmics have perpetually broken antennae, that would mean I’ll forever hear static instead of the background music of life.
Every Christmas story needs a happy ending. I find mine on the Internet.
There are two anosmia forums, and stumbling upon them reminds me of that scene in Field of Dreams in which those old-time ballplayers emerge, one by one, from a thicket of cornstalks.
I have never met a fellow anosmic, but it’s nice having proof they’re out there. Burning dinner. Fretting over what to wear. Their forum messages read like letters from the front.
“Wow! Finally I find that I am not alone. ... Can anyone tell me why I apologize when I can’t smell something that’s shoved under my otherwise beautiful English nose?” Jennifer North, 33, writes from California.
Joe Balfantz, who works for an oil company in Louisiana, recalls that he was two weeks away from entering the Naval Academy when “I received a letter saying that I would not be accepted to the Academy based on my anosmia. ... I’m glad to find other people actually exist with this condition.”
Makes no difference where you gather to feel the warmth of companionship or to bask in the glow given off by kindred spirits. Home is nice. Cyberspace will do. What counts is connections made with hearts that beat in time, the satisfaction of knowing you’re not some lonesome porcupine sitting in a tree.
Any Nozzie will tell you the sense that matters most at Christmas, and every other time of year, isn’t smell.
Express & Echo (Exeter)
January 5, 2004
Ron lives with sense of loss
The aromas of roasting coffee, freshly-cut flowers or bacon sizzling under the grill are pleasures Ron Chapman cannot experience—because he has problems smelling. Ron, 48, of Topsham Road, Exeter, is one of a minority of people who suffer with anosmia, a term given to those who have little or no sense of smell.
For most of us, odours enhance and improve our lives, whether it be the smell of food, fragrances or associating a particular smell with an event or person.
But then there are people like Ron, who are denied this natural ability by a disorder in their olfactory system, the part of the brain which allows us to smell.
Anosmia can be caused by a traumatic head injury or a virus, such as a severe cold.
Some people are born without a sense of smell, a condition known as congenital anosmia, and some develop it as a consequence of another disorder, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
However, it is unclear how many people suffer. Because of a lack of information available to doctors, anosmia tends not to be treated and, as a result, it is hugely under reported.
Some anosmics suffer from depression and their quality of life is severely affected, but, at the moment, there is little that can be done to help them.
And not being able to smell can also mean the difference between life and death, or serious injury, as was the case for Ron, earlier in the year.
In November, Ron and his partner, Marlene Ware, fled their home because smoke from their neighbour’s wood-burner was filling their house with fumes.
The couple moved temporarily into a holiday apartment in Exton, fearing for Ron’s health.
He said: “Unless Marlene was in the house with me I did not know if there were any fumes coming in, which could have had very serious consequences.
“There are levels of carbon monoxide in all fumes and if I was on my own in the house I could have slept through it.” Ron said he accepted not being able to smell certain things as part of life.
He said: “If there are flowers on a table I would not be able to smell them, not unless I put my nose right into them.
“I know what food smells like but if I walk into a room I cannot smell food cooking like other people can.” Ron, a road maintenance supervisor, admitted smoking 30 to 40 cigarettes a day could have had some effect on his condition, but said he was unable to smell even as a child.
He said: “I have had problems smelling things for as long as I can remember.
“I don’t think there was one occasion when I hit my head. I think I was just born this way and I am sure what sense of smell I do have is deteriorating.” Our ability to smell is due to two small odour-detecting patches, made up of about five or six million yellowish cells, high up in the nasal passages.
For comparison, a rabbit has 100 million of these olfactory receptors, and a dog 220 million.
Our smelling ability reaches a plateau at about the age of eight and declines in old age.
Some researchers claim that our sensitivity to smells begins to deteriorate long before old age, perhaps even from the early 20s.
Exeter GP Adrian Midgley advised anyone who had problems smelling to seek medical advice.
He said: “Lack of a sense of smell can be caused by a severe blow to the head. In this case, the nasal nerves can be severed and cannot be fixed.
“But a more common cause is a blockage in the nasal passage or the sinuses, which can be treated.” Many odorous substances activate not only the olfactory system, but also the somatosensory system—the nerve endings in our noses which are sensitive to temperature and pain.
This is why anosmics can still detect menthol, phenyl ethyl alcohol and many other substances.
Memory is often associated with smell and the two are intimately linked. If we smell something before a negative experience, that smell is linked to that experience.
This can be a problem for unpleasant medical treatments or surgery when the last meal is often associated with the pain or trauma.
But this very effect could, in the future, be put to therapeutic advantage.
If smell was associated with a positive, healing treatment then the smell itself could substitute for the treatment once the link had been reinforced.
February 6, 2004
ANTIBIOTICS: Reversible anosmia reported after amikacin therapy
Reversible anosmia is possible after amikacin therapy.
“Olfactory disorders are among the rare adverse effects of antibiotic therapy,” scientists in Switzerland explained. “To date, olfactory losses or distortions have been reported after the use of doxycycline, amoxicillin, clarithromycin, roxithromycin, kanamycin sulfate, and streptomycin sulfate.”
A. Welge-Luessen and colleagues at the University of Basel Hospital described what they “believe to be the first case of transient anosmia associated with the use of intravenous amikacin sulfate.”
“The appearance of the disorder and its subsequent resolution were demonstrated by psychometric testing as well as by chemosensory evoked potentials,” according to the report. “Based on the well-documented temporal course of the anosmia, there is a probable causal correlation between the administration of amikacin and the appearance of the olfactory disturbance.”
“However, the exact pathogenesis of the anosmia is still a matter of conjecture,” the researchers concluded.
Welge-Luessen and coauthors published their study in the Archives of Otolaryngology - Head & Neck Surgery (Reversible anosmia after amikacin therapy. Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg 2003;129:1331-3).
For more information, contact A. Welge-Luessen, University of Basel Hospital, Department of Otorhinolaryngology, Petersgraben 4, CH-4031 Basel, Switzerland.
March 9, 2004
The Daily Nebraskan
The shtick of an unschooled schnoz
By David Diehl
Those who tell you to enjoy life, to stop and smell the roses, can stuff it.
Do they ever consider the people who can’t smell? Unless you’re Haley Joel Osment with the “I-see-dead-people” sense, everybody has sight, touch, hearing, taste and smell.
My central nervous system didn’t get the memo on that last one.
For 23 years, I’ve suffered from anosmia—the complete lack of a sense of smell. Actually, I wouldn’t say I’ve suffered from it. As a quick conversation starter at parties and guaranteed protection from gaseous SBV (Silent-But-Violent) bombs, I’ve actually found this rare condition quite beneficial. It’s my personal circus sideshow, a fascinating physical non-trait I find captivating and think you will too.
I couldn’t really care less about the complex, so I can’t wax 850 poetic words about anosmia. In fact, I didn’t even know that’s what the inability to smell was called until I Googled “lack of smell” on Sunday.
The byproducts, though, make for some great stories. So I’m just going to tell you about my life and times as an anosmic. And I’ve got enough stories for a touching CBS after school special.
I first figured out I couldn’t smell around the ninth grade. Up until then I figured I was doing it incorrectly. You know, not breathing in right or something. Nope. I just can’t smell.
So looking back, it’s no wonder “scratch-and-sniff” stickers never worked for me. I always got the broken ones, I thought.
And yes, I can taste just fine, I think. I can detect the slightest difference between dark and milk chocolates, between Burger King and McDonald’s fries. Although that damn Diet Dr Pepper vs. regular Dr Pepper thing still has me stumped.
I can remember smelling two things in my life: Ammonia and buffalo wings. The ammonia is from my cleaning chores when I was young. I got a whiff of it once and, man, did it scorch my nose. I took a real quick whiff again for twisted kicks but that’s been it ever since.
The buffalo wings scent came while I was on a date with an old girlfriend and I leaned across the table to say something. I took a breath in my nose while situated right over my piping hot wings and—Hallelujah!—I swear to all holy olfactory deities it tasted exactly like the buffalo sauce ... inside my freaking nose! I don’t know when I was happier, my first kiss or smelling those wings. Seriously, it’s a toss-up.
So if you see some skinny whack-job at the Watering Hole or BW3s sniffing wings and immediately throwing a minor celebration afterward, come introduce yourself.
I’ve had the same three 2-ounce bottles of cologne since I was 16. I have absolutely no clue what they smell like, but I’ve heard Preferred Stock is pretty good, so that’s what I wear most. Of course, I can never tell if I put too much on.
It’s guaranteed if I tell of my anosmia to a group of drunk dudes at a house party, at least one will respond with something vulgar about how I could use that to my advantage, umm, performing with the women. Yeah, pal. Great medical and practical insight, you stud.
If you could find surveillance tapes of my junior high and high school career, not once was I ever the first to detect an incapacitating fart. Everybody else would freak out first; I’d always follow by covering my nose, scowling and hollering in disgust. I really had no idea what the fuss was all about. Ever.
I always get really nervous if I let a fart slip out in class. I have no clue if it just doesn’t smell or if my neighbors are just sitting there, suffering and gasping in overwhelmed silence.
One time in the dorms, I cooked a bowl of ramen noodles the day before Christmas break. I then forgot about them and the moldy noodles stewed in the muggy microwave for a month. My roommate got knocked over when he opened the microwave in January. He repositioned all the furniture to watch TV from the hallway. I had no problem sitting in the room.
My friends always forget I can’t smell. They always ask me if I smell something funny and I put this blank “duh” look on my face and shrug. Then they feel like idiots and we all share a hearty chuckle.
Wait. I smelled a skunk once. It was that one they trapped in Broyhill Fountain last semester. That smelled kinda bad.
The best part was that I didn’t tell my parents about this until I was 22. See, I was kind of ashamed so I kept quiet to my family. I figured if I told my parents, they’d ask, “Why didn’t you say something earlier?” So I didn’t say anything to them and my avoidance just built upon its own momentum. This led to humorous moments, like the time I watched television for, like, six hours in the living room. My mom finally burst in. “Dave, how can you stand to be in here? The dog pooped and threw up in here this morning.”
“Oh,” I lied. “I, uh, just kind of got used to it.”
And that’s how you live as an anosmic. You just kind of get used to it. I don’t know anything different and if there’s any sense you could function best without, it’s smell.
I would like to know what fresh-baked cookies smell like. And please, what is the deal with new cars? But then again, I’ve been told wet dogs and smoky bar clothes are just abhorrent. So this door swings two ways.
I don’t need to stop and smell the roses, or wake up and smell the coffee. But wake up and smell the buffalo wings?
Now we’re talking.
July 20, 2004
Scents and sensitivity
She has never known the fragrance of a beautiful flower—or been able to tell by sniffing whether food is safe to eat. Lucy Mangan on being born with no sense of smell
I am not a fully sentient being. To those who have seen me first thing in the morning, this will come as no surprise. But in this case I am referring to the fact that I am congenitally anosmic; or, as I more helpfully put it when people thrust perfumed articles under my nose and invite an opinion on the aroma, I was born without a sense of smell.
It took until I was seven to convince my mother. She reluctantly acknowledged the truth of my claim (“Air! It’s just air, mummy!”) after making me sniff the fumes from her bottle of nail varnish remover until I looked up hopefully and said “My eyes are burning—is that what you mean?” Although I would still privilege that experience over the time I was persuaded by well-meaning schoolfriends that as I couldn’t smell Emma Webster’s perfume, I should drink it. This was, I recall, on the grounds that taste and smell are so closely linked that it would give me at least some idea of the delicious scent I was missing. Alas, all it taught me was that perfume is not a viable beverage, and all it taught the rest was that White Musk-laced vomit still smells, ineluctably, like vomit.
Max Christian, a fellow congenital anosmic, whose website (maxuk.net) has several pages devoted to the subject, had similar difficulties. “My first girlfriend’s parents were industrial chemists,” he says. “They didn’t believe me either, so they gave me a bottle of concentrated hydrochloric acid, just to be sure. What they hadn’t realised is that I would hold it right under my nose before trying to smell it.
“Apparently that’s not something [normal] people would actually be capable of. Before anyone could stop me, I had inhaled enough fumes to keep all past, present and future members of the Grateful Dead happy for a week.”
Naturally, the problems of being olfactorily-challenged don’t compare to those which attend blindness or deafness, but certain accommodations do have to be made, which you only fully appreciate when you start living alone. I had enough sense to buy a smoke alarm, but it wasn’t until my sister called round and nearly collapsed from the smell of a hob burner I had accidentally switched on that I realised I needed something that would alert me aurally to gas leaks before I blew up the street. The good people of Corgi eventually put me in touch with www.besltd.uk which sells such detectors. A few bouts of food poisoning alerted me to the fact that I can eat, unperturbed, food which would cause those with functioning nasal passages to don HazMat suits and call in the public health authorities. I now shop every two days, check best-before dates assiduously and treat three-day-old milk with the respect it deserves.
I have also learned to stock my shelves with visitors as well as myself in mind. So I have fruit teas in the house even though they appear to be nothing more than an expensive way of colouring a mugful of hot water, wine (variants on a vinegar theme to my useless palate, but people look bewildered when you offer them hot chocolate with everything) and herbs, even though they are a matter of supreme indifference to me. When I cook for other people and a recipe says “season to taste”, I consult my written list of what green bits are supposed to complement which, add them until the dish looks decorated enough and hope for the best. I’m still mastering garlic.
My mother—possibly in an attempt to make up for earlier acetone abuse—used to smell all my clothes for me, but now I have to operate a strict rota and wash everything after I’ve worn it once. Occasionally, of course, the system breaks down, and for those who have had to sit next to me at work or on the tube at those times, I can only apologise.
On the other hand, I am a very good babysitter. I can’t smell nappies or any of the preliminary gases that tell you something spectacular is on its way, so I have to watch my charges like a hawk for the brief cessations of activity and that faraway look in their eyes that tells me they are about to excrete something delightful. No kid is going to fall into a pond or lynch itself from a bunkbed on my watch. Although we may burn to a crisp if a fire starts out of eyeshot, of course.
I subscribe to the “what you’ve never had, you never miss” school of thought, as does Christian and many of the visitors to his site, but for those who lose their sense of smell later in life—through viral infections, nasal surgery or head trauma—the effect on their quality of life can be enormous. “I see a great number of people who are seriously depressed after losing their sense of smell,” says David Roberts, ear, nose and throat consultant at Guy’s & St Thomas’s Hospital in London. “It’s a very emotive sense, ingrained in us, in our pleasures—like mating and sexual desire—and in our warning systems. The nerves stimulated by smell send messages to one of the oldest, most primitive parts of our brain, which is why it’s so integral to our lives.”
Professor Tim Jacob at Cardiff University, who researches olfaction and had to start a second website when anosmics read about his work on the first one and started inundating him with requests for information, agrees. “You will have found other ways of adapting, using texture and consistency to get information about food. But other people get very disturbed [by the loss],” he says.
“The tongue can only distinguish the four basic tastes: bitter, sweet, salty, sour. Smell detects flavour and nuance, so they lose all significant sense of taste. About 17% become clinically depressed—they become oversensitive about having body odour, frightened of going out.”
And those are just the obvious things. As Jacob also notes: “You lose lots of subliminal information and links with the emotional centres of the brain. Smells are inextricably linked with memories and form the backdrop to your sensory experience. They are tremendously evocative. The smell of your first girlfriend’s perfume or boyfriend’s aftershave, anything associated with strong emotion, will always trigger a rush of memory.”
I am beginning to feel quite intrigued by this unknown world, but this quickly deepens into concern about what else I am missing. “And of course you are attracted to people who smell different from you, because it suggests they have a different immunotype,” says Jacob. “It’s the evolutionary system trying to get you to pass on two sets of immunity advantages to your offspring.”
Galvanised by the thought of spawning only sickly, wizened mites, I ask about treatment. For those who have lost their sense of smell through infection or damage, the news is relatively good. “They usually regain some ability because the olfactory nerve, unlike the rest of the dozen cranial nerves, is capable of regeneration,” says Roberts. Steroid-based drug treatments can help further. Nasal polyps causing blockages to olfactory passageways can be treated medically and surgically. But, as one might expect, less can be done to rectify congenital causes.
I will have to soldier on, and draw what comfort I can from a recent exchange with an ex-boyfriend who, as we reminisced about our relationship said wistfully, “You were the best girlfriend in the world. You let me bring curry home from the pub every night and I could fart as much as I liked.” I’m putting it in my next personal ad.
August 23, 2004
That Stinks: People with Rare Obesity Syndrome Can’t Sense Odors—Loss Supports Cilia’s Role in the Condition
Johns Hopkins researchers have discovered that many people with Bardet-Biedl syndrome [BBS], a rare, complex condition marked by an array of seemingly unconnected symptoms, including obesity, learning difficulties, eye problems and asthma, also have another, previously unreported problem: many of them can’t detect odors.
Because people with the syndrome likely lose their sense of smell before or shortly after birth, it wouldn’t occur to them to mention it, and so the problem, known as anosmia, had never been reported, the researchers say.
But spurred by new understanding that the problems seen in BBS are caused by faulty cellular structures called cilia, researchers led by Nicholas Katsanis, Ph.D., decided to look into patients’ ability to detect odors. The olfactory system, which is responsible for the sense of smell, is perhaps the most cilia-rich system in the body, relying on a bed of the tentacle-like structures to detect odiferous molecules as they pass through the nose.
Sure enough, when colleagues at University College London administered a simple, standard smell test to BBS patients, 40 percent couldn’t smell anything, and another 10 percent had a reduced odor-detecting ability. The Johns Hopkins researchers then turned to mice missing either of two BBS-causing genes to prove that faulty cilia, rather than any other problems, were to blame. The results are described in the Aug. 22 advance online section of Nature Genetics.
“This proves beyond a shadow of doubt that the mechanism we’ve proposed—faulty cilia—is behind the syndrome,” says Katsanis, an assistant professor in Hopkins’ McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine. “Without the mouse studies, the problem could have been at any step along the way: from detecting odors, to communicating with the brain, to pulling up the right word to describe the odor.”
“But we’ve proven that loss of the BBS proteins causes ciliary problems in mice, and the ciliary problems cause the clinical symptom,” he says. “I love it when science makes sense.”
Last year, Katsanis and an international team of colleagues discovered that BBS-involved proteins were found in and near cilia, and they suggested that faulty cilia might explain the variable problems in BBS. But until now, there was no direct proof that the ciliary problems they’d observed in worms and cells were also present in mice or people with BBS-causing genetic mutations.
“We took a disease associated with cilia and looked at a system whose whole job, its raison d’etre, essentially is making cilia,” says Randall Reed, Ph.D., a professor of molecular biology and genetics in Hopkins’ Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences and a Howard Hughes Medical investigator. “If the association was right, we’d expect an effect.”
Reed’s research assistant Heather Kulaga and Katsanis’s research assistant Carmen Leitch studied mice missing either of two BBS-causing genes, BBS1 or BBS4, to figure out whether the animals’ sense of smell was impaired. [All four of the patients who had mutations in BBS4 were unable to smell.]
The overall organization of the olfactory system in both sets of mice seemed normal, she discovered, but instead of the normal sea-grass-like patch of lengthy cilia where smelly molecules usually come to rest, the mice had only short, stumpy cilia wannabes. The stunted cilia couldn’t detect odor-causing molecules, so virtually no electrical signals were sent to the brain, Kulaga discovered in experiments where she measured the electrical signals, or lack thereof.
“These animals don’t have structures for detecting odors,” says Reed, who has been studying the cellular proteins involved in detecting odors for close to 20 years. “The cilia were dramatically deformed, and key odor-detecting proteins weren’t where they should have been, but were trapped in different places in the cell.”
Kaluga also found less of these key odor detecting proteins in the knockout mice than in normal mice. The researchers still need to figure out why, but suggest there may be a feedback loop that keeps expression low because odors aren’t being detected or because, once made, the proteins aren’t moved to their proper locations.
Katsanis and Reed are both excited about their “perfect” collaboration—Katsanis because the olfactory system is a great model to figure out the details of how BBS-causing mutations upset ciliary function, and Reed because the BBS genes and proteins are a whole new toolbox to probe the nose.
“We knew a lot about what these olfactory neurons look like, but really very little about how they got that way,” says Reed. “Now we have a whole collection of genes, the BBS genes, to use to see how the cells’ long cilia are made and how they work.”
The research was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Development, the National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, the National Institutes of Health, the March of Dimes, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the National Kidney Research Fund and the Wellcome Trust.
Morning Call (Allentown, PA)
November 5, 2004
9 Cold-Eeze users allege they lost sense of smell; In suit, they say Quigley of Doylestown should have known spray could harm.
By Hal Marcovitz
Nine users of the cold remedy Cold-Eeze sued its Doylestown manufacturer Thursday, alleging that the nasal spray version of the product caused them to permanently lose their sense of smell.
The suit was filed in Bucks County Court against Quigley Corp. by the plaintiffs, who live in California, Massachusetts, Virginia, Washington, New York and Minnesota.
The suit does not seek specific monetary damages but demands compensation for medical costs as well as past and future pain, mental suffering and emotional distress.
A Quigley spokesman said the company would have no comment on the suit. Attorneys for the plaintiffs were unavailable for comment.
Quigley made national headlines in 1996 when it brought out the lozenge version of the product, which employed zinc gluconate as an active ingredient. The company cited a study by the Cleveland Clinic that showed the product is effective in reducing the duration of cold symptoms by 42 percent.
According to the suit, the nasal spray version of Cold-Eeze, which also contains zinc gluconate, went on the market in 2003. The suit cites clinical studies dating to 1937 that showed “zinc is toxic to the olfactory epithelium, the membrane essential for smell located about 7 centimeters up and into the human nose from the nostrils.”
Each of the plaintiffs alleges that they purchased the spray version of Cold-Eeze and used it to treat cold symptoms.
For example, the suit says Nicholas C. Edwards “purchased Cold-Eeze at a local retailer in Virginia to treat the symptoms of a cold. Plaintiff Edwards used Cold-Eeze in the manner described by Quigley on the Cold-Eeze package. As a direct result of his use of Cold-Eeze, Mr. Edwards has lost entirely or substantially his sense of smell. As of the filing of this complaint, Mr. Edwards’ sense of smell has not returned to its pre-Cold-Eeze level, and plaintiff believes that this condition is permanent.”
The lawsuit says that without the sense of smell, the plaintiffs are “robbed of many of the joys of life. Plaintiffs can no longer enjoy the smell of fresh air, of newly cut grass, of a bouquet of flowers, of the taste of a meal.”
Quigley says on its Web site that “zinc is astringent and may create temporary discomfort.” Also, the company says, two additives in the Cold-Eeze nasal spray, benzylkonium chloride and benzyl alcohol, “can cause temporary stinging and burning.”
Quigley’s Web site says the packaging for the product warns consumers about possible side effects, including temporary burning and stinging.
Also, the Web site says, “Stop use and ask your doctor if symptoms persist. Statistical data regarding pre-launch safety studies for irritation and anosmia (loss of sense of smell) were consistent with isotonic saline, with no cases or incidents of anosmia.” Isotonic saline is a solution of salt.
In March, the Los Angeles Times reported that Quigley’s nasal spray as well as the nasal gel Zicam Cold Remedy, manufactured by Matrixx Industries, were the targets of at least five lawsuits. Also, the newspaper reported that the Food and Drug Administration was reviewing complaints about the two zinc-based products.
Albert Piechotta, a spokesman for Quigley, said then that no problems were reported among 80 people involved in a study of Cold-Eeze. The study was submitted to the FDA before the product could be marketed as a homeopathic remedy.
Both companies said the occurrence of anosmia among some users of the zinc sprays might be a coincidence. They said anosmia was most often caused by viruses, which produce the cold symptoms that prompt people to use the sprays.
Doctors who specialize in treating conditions involving taste and smell in California, Colorado, Connecticut and Illinois said they had seen patients who complained of a severe burning sensation followed by the inability to smell or taste after spraying their noses with one of the products.
Without science associating zinc gluconate with a permanent loss of smell, “what really needs to be done is more research,” Dr. Richard L. Doty, director of the Smell and Taste Center at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, told the Los Angeles Times.
In 2003, Dr. Bruce Jafek, an otolaryngologist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver, reported at the American Rhinological Society meeting on 10 cases of anosmia among zinc gluconate users.
Northern Territory News (Australia)
November 24, 2004
Man robbed of smell
By Nigel Adlam
A man lost his sense of smell permanently after being punched in the face for allegedly making a racist remark.
William Turner was knocked over by the force of the blow and banged his head on a brick wall and lino-covered concrete floor.
He suffered serious head injuries, which caused his anosmia—loss of the sense of smell.
Zeron Patrick Dalton, 19, pleaded guilty in the Supreme Court to causing serious actual danger. He was given an 18-month suspended sentence.
Turner was attacked at the front door of his home at Karama, Darwin, as he said goodbye to friends in August last year.
Dalton said he attacked him after being told that Mr Turner had called him a “white c...”
“He thinks he’s big and he thinks he’s black when he’s white,” Dalton told police. “He’s always a smart arse.”
He denied he landed a heavy punch. “More of a clip on the ear than a punch to make him fall down,” Dalton said. “He just smokes too much drugs. Off his head all the time. It wasn’t like, bang, like a king hit.”
Justice David Angel said the consequences of assault could sometimes be “terrible.” He said Mr Turner’s head injury was relatively slight but people had only to look at the death of former Test cricket David Hookes to realise what could happen.
Herald News (Passaic County, NJ)
November 28, 2004
Smelling now a voluntary undertaking
By Stanley M. Aronson
There are few sensations available to mere mortals that can surpass the spontaneous pleasures aroused by the aroma of freshly brewed morning coffee, the ozone in the atmosphere during the initial phases of a thunderstorm, or an attar of roses in the early evening. Brief encounters with certain smells give punctuation and rapture to human existence.
Yet, of the handful of senses available to man, smelling is now considered the least important; and in the evolution of animal life, the capacity to smell has diminished to the point that its relative absence is no longer life-threatening.
Physiologists tell us that the human receptors for smell can detect only about a dozen primary odors, and that the panoply of aromas that man can distinguish therefore represents combinations of these primary aromas, augmented by such other senses as vision and taste, while aided by one’s imagination.
The phenomenon of smelling, in man, represents little more that some volatile molecules leaving their source, carried passively in the atmosphere to arrive eventually upon a small zone, about a square inch, in the upper nasal passages, where they react chemically with a network of neural receptors. Any hindrance in this olfactory zone—such as when a human develops a “stuffy nose” accompanying an upper-respiratory infection—renders the person temporarily anosmic; that is, incapable of smelling.
This may sometimes be disagreeable, since the flavor of many foods depends upon its accompanying aroma. But anosmia is certainly not a mortal impairment. And given the amount of smog and other disagreeable components in the air, anosmia might not constitute a material loss for some people.
Smelling is one of the first receptive capabilities to develop in primitive one-cell creatures. Certain molecules, dissolved in the surrounding waters, “inform” these organisms that danger lurks or, alternatively, that there is a nearby source of food. Thus there are some molecules that provoke a reflex retreat, and some that prompt attraction.
Organisms such as the amoeba will then swim toward or away from these sources, their direction determined by the relative aqueous concentrations of the inciting molecules.
Certain fish—sharks, for example—possess an astonishing capacity to detect particular organic molecules dissolved in the surrounding sea water. A shark can detect sources of food many miles distant. The brain of the shark is little more than a huge neural center devoted largely to the reception, integration and translation of chemical sensations impinging upon the shark’s nose. In essence, a shark’s nervous system consists of a group of highly sensitive nerve receptors transducing the impulses into electrical messages to the motor nerves that control the creature’s motion toward its prey. There is no intermediate “thinking brain” to determine the merit of such an attack.
There is, incidentally, little distinction in fish between smelling and tasting.
Each sense represents a specific neural response to a concentration of molecules, either volatilized into the atmosphere or dissolved in the ambient waters. The separation of the two senses becomes more apparent in land-dwelling creatures, although overlaps persist.
To humans who can barely distinguish between two wines, the nasal abilities of lower animals seem truly amazing. The salmon, for example, can “remember” the path from the deep oceans, over thousands of miles, back to the stream where it was born; the pig can locate and dig out the forest truffles; the bloodhound can follow a days-old circuitous path of a specific human; the male Chinese silkworm moth (Bombyx mori) is drawn by the scent of a female moth over six miles away; and many of the animals of the forest can detect the distant odor of humans, prompting the animals to flee.
For humans, especially city dwellers, smelling the atmosphere is now a voluntary undertaking; it is no longer an essential, life-sustaining activity. Indeed, Western society now regards most natural smells as unpleasant, and accordingly makes every effort to neutralize them or replace them with perfumes. Say, “I detect an odor,” and most people will anticipate a dead animal, human sweat, or the residue of some unseemly bodily function, rather than the essence of lilies or the aroma of an infant.
Air-conditioning machines have vigilant filters and many a home boasts electronic air purifiers. Body deodorants, breath fresheners, and mouthwashes are commonplace in the lavatories of most Americans. Odor, per se, is now considered bad. Roy Bedichek, in his text The Sense of Smell, wryly observes that we may compliment a woman by declaring that she is a lady of taste—but never a lady of smell.
In the distant past, man survived by depending heavily upon his capacity to detect, by smelling, hints of danger carried by the winds. The modern urban dweller has gradually discarded these primitive skills in odor detection, relying increasingly on his vision, hearing, extracorporeal electronic devices and the newspaper to inform him about his environment.
Financial Times (London)
December 4, 2004
Scents and sensibilities Smell affects our mood, taste, safety—even who we are attracted to. Yet a surprising number of us lack this little-considered sense
By Stephen Pincock
At a party the other week, a friend told me she was anosmic. She has no sense of smell at all, so the scent of freshly cut grass, the curling aroma of strong coffee, even the taint of petrol are all lost on her.
Predictably, I bombarded her with questions. Can she smell smoke? What about her sense of taste? Most importantly, how can she appreciate a good wine? She took my interrogation in her stride. They were the same questions she always gets: How do you cope with no sense of smell? How do you even know that you are lacking something like smell?
She explained it was an affliction that first came to light when she was a child in Australia. On long-distance car journeys with her family, she was the only one oblivious to the silent-but-deadly emissions produced by her brothers. While the rest of the family groaned and rolled down the windows, she would wonder what all the fuss was about.
Over the years, her sensory disability has led to some worrying scrapes—like the time her brother arrived home to find her sitting in the kitchen unaware of the pong of leaking gas. Or the time she spent all day painting in a room with no windows open and couldn’t figure out why she had such a nasty headache, until someone mentioned the overpowering paint fumes. She also needs to be very careful about how long she leaves food in the fridge—without the distinctive tang of decay, it can be hard to tell when something has gone off.
Anosmia is to the sense of smell what blindness is to sight. In rare cases like my friend’s, it is congenital, from birth. In others, it can be a partial or temporary affair caused by injury or illness. Some estimates suggest that 1 to 2 per cent of the population suffers some taste-smell dysfunction. “But that’s the tip of the iceberg really, because people often don’t really complain about losing their sense of smell,” says leading smell researcher Professor Tim Jacob from Cardiff University.
Despite its prevalence, there is not enough solid information around about the condition. Jacob explains that he was forced to learn more about anosmia a few years ago when he launched a website on the sense of smell for university students. The first people who responded were anosmics, and he was inundated with requests from people who were desperate to find out more.
My friend deals with her sensory deficiency with her trademark aplomb. But for many people, living without being able to smell can have big physical and psychological effects—many who lose the sense in later life become clinically depressed.
“Its loss can cause lots of problems,” says Jacob. “It has different impacts on different people. If you lose your sense of smell—ask any anosmic—food just loses its savour. You’re left with just the basic tastes, because most of what we think of as taste is smell.” Some people overcompensate by eating lots of sweet food and becoming obese, others lose all interest in food.
Scientists also know that smell is linked to memory and mood. It even plays a scientific role in who we’re attracted to, because smell is also closely associated with our immune systems. We tend to be attracted to someone’s smell or repelled by it depending on their immune system type, Jacob says. We find similar immune- related smells unpleasant, because having children with someone with a different immunotype gives our offspring a survival advantage in fighting off disease.
The Nobel Assembly recognised the central place that smell holds in our everyday life when its members awarded this year’s medicine prize to two researchers who had explained the biological mechanisms behind our ability to detect and recognise odours.
The award was given to Richard Axel, a researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Columbia University, New York, and to his collaborator Linda B. Buck, from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington.
Human beings are thought to be able to recognise somewhere in the region of 10,000 different odours. Buck and Axel’s work showed that we identify this vast number of different smell molecules via a kind of sensory fingerprint that each one makes on our smell receptors.
Thanks to their work, scientists now know that each smell receptor cell in the nose has just one type of odourant receptor on it, and that each receptor can detect only a limited number of different odourant substances. This means that our olfactory receptor cells are highly specialised for a few odours, but most smells are the result of a combination of molecules. The messages from individual receptors are combined in the brain to form distinctive patterns.
Axel and Buck showed that 3 per cent of all our genes, roughly 1,000 in all, are used to code smell receptors—although many of those have lost their function in humans. That’s why, unlike dogs, we can’t distinguish between individuals based solely on their smell.
Thankfully, for those of us who aren’t anosmic, that leaves more than enough smelling power to distinguish between the aroma of a nice Aussie shiraz and a bottle of vinegar. at least at the beginning of the party.
Smell Test May Predict Alzheimer’s, Study Shows
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A simple scratch and sniff test may help doctors identify patients with Alzheimer’s disease, researchers said on Monday.
They found that patients with early Alzheimer’s disease may be unable to smell certain odors, including strawberry, smoke, soap and cloves.
“Early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is critical for patients and their families to receive the most beneficial treatment and medications,” said Dr. Davangere Devanand, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at New York’s Columbia University, who led the study.
“While currently there is no cure for the disease, early diagnosis and treatment can help patients and their families to better plan their lives.”
Alzheimer’s, which affects an estimated 4.5 million Americans, is an incurable and always fatal brain disease.
It starts out with mild memory loss but progresses to damage the brain severely, causing confusion and eventually leaves the patient unable to care for himself or herself.
There are some drugs that may help slow the progression of the early disease, and researchers are working on vaccines and new drugs to treat Alzheimer’s.
While some simple tests such as a challenge to draw a clock face can point to Alzheimer’s, in the early stages it is often difficult to tell if a patient has Alzheimer’s or some other form of memory loss that may or may not lead to dementia.
For the study Devanand and colleagues studied 150 patients with minimal to mild cognitive impairment. They compared them to 63 healthy elderly people and ran tests on them every 6 months.
The inability to identify 10 specific odors clearly predicted who would go on to develop Alzheimer’s, they told a meeting of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology.
These smells included strawberry, smoke, soap, menthol, clove, pineapple, natural gas, lilac, lemon and leather.
“Narrowing the list of odors can potentially expedite screening and help with early diagnosis,” Devanand said in a statement.
This makes sense, he added, because examination of the brains of Alzheimer’s patients shows that the nerve pathways involved in smell are affected at a very early stage.
Several groups have tried to link the sense of smell with Alzheimer’s and at least one company markets a scratch and sniff test for the disease. But Devanand said it is important to identify the specific odors that may be involved.