How fragrances boosted memory in older people

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Scientists have discovered a simple, new way to make our brains sharper. It’s all about what we smell while we’re asleep.

A group of brain scientists at the University of California, Irvine have found that when older adults smelled different fragrances every night for six months, their memory skills got much better.

In fact, the people in this study improved their memory skills by a whopping 226% more than a control group who didn’t smell the fragrances. That’s more than double!

The scientists believe this easy, nose-based method could be used to help strengthen memory and maybe even keep dementia at bay.

The Study: Smell the Details

The study was conducted at UCI’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory. The participants were all men and women between 60 and 85 years old. None of them had any memory problems.

Each participant received a diffuser and seven different cartridges filled with natural oils. Every night before bed, they would put a new cartridge into their diffuser and let it release the scent for two hours while they slept.

Those who received full-strength cartridges (the “enriched” group) showed a 226% increase in their memory skills, compared to the control group who received oils in much smaller amounts.

The researchers used a word list test to measure this. They also found that the enriched group had better connections in their brains and reported sleeping more deeply.

From Scent to Sense: The Background

The ability to smell, also known as olfactory capacity, is important for our health. It’s known that losing the ability to smell can be a sign of serious neurological and psychiatric diseases.

These include Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, and alcoholism. Some recent studies even suggest that losing your sense of smell because of COVID-19 could lead to memory problems.

In the past, researchers have found that exposing people with dementia to lots of different smells twice a day can boost their memories and language skills, help their mood, and improve their ability to smell.

The UCI team wanted to see if they could use this knowledge to create a simple and non-invasive way to fight dementia.

The main problem was that it’s not practical for people with memory problems to smell 80 different things each day.

“This would be difficult even for those without dementia,” said Michael Leon, one of the researchers.

So, the UCI team decided to simplify things. They reduced the number of scents to just seven and had participants smell them one at a time while they were sleeping.

This way, the participants didn’t need to remember to smell things during their waking hours.

Sniffing Out the Future

This study confirms what scientists already knew: our sense of smell is directly linked to our memories.

In fact, smell is the only sense that is directly connected to the part of our brain where memories are stored. All our other senses have to go through another part of the brain first.

Despite this connection, there hasn’t been a way to help people who are losing their sense of smell.

Unlike with vision problems, which can be treated with glasses, or hearing loss, which can be treated with hearing aids, there hasn’t been any help for smell loss. This study could change that.

In the future, the team plans to see how their scent-sleep method affects people who already have memory problems.

They also hope their findings will inspire other researchers to look into smell therapies for memory problems.

They’re even planning to release a product this fall based on their study that people can use at home. So, stay tuned and keep your nose at the ready!

If you care about dementia, please read studies about low choline intake linked to higher dementia risk, and how eating nuts can affect your cognitive ability.

For more information about brain health, please see recent studies that blueberry supplements may prevent cognitive decline, and results showing higher magnesium intake could help benefit brain health.

The study was published in Frontiers in Neuroscience.

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