Cognitive function: The power of scent

Olfactory enrichment improves memory and brain structure in older adults.


Memory is a vital cognitive function that allows individuals to retain and recall information. Researchers have recently explored various memory enhancement methods, from mental training exercises to nutritional interventions.

In this study, scientists uncovered a simple yet effective approach to boosting memory using fragrances. This study investigates the potential memory-enhancing properties of sweet-smelling scents and their impact on cognitive performance.

A groundbreaking study by University of California, Irvine neuroscientists, older adults experienced a remarkable memory boost when exposed to a nightly fragrance for six months. The scent diffused through their bedrooms as they slept, resulting in an astonishing 226% increase in cognitive capacity compared to the control group. This finding highlights the potential of using the sense of smell as a simple and non-invasive technique to strengthen memory and potentially prevent dementia.

Published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, the research involved men and women aged 60 to 85 without memory impairment. Participants were given a diffuser and seven cartridges containing a unique natural oil. The enriched group received full-strength cartridges, while the control group received smaller amounts of the fats. Every evening, participants inserted a different cartridge into the diffuser, which released the fragrance for two hours as they slept.

In a study conducted by University of California, Irvine (UCI) researchers, participants in the enriched group showed an impressive 226% increase in cognitive function compared to the control group, measured through a word list memory test. Brain imaging revealed better integrity in the left uncinate fasciculus, a brain pathway crucial for memory and decision-making. This pathway tends to weaken with age. Additionally, participants reported improved sleep quality.

Loss of olfactory capacity, or the ability to smell, has been linked to the development of various neurological and psychiatric diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and schizophrenia. To combat this, the UCI team sought to harness the power of smell through a simple, non-invasive dementia-fighting technique, building on previous findings that exposing individuals with moderate dementia to various odors improved memory, language skills, and mood. The goal is to provide an effective and practical solution for memory enhancement in older adults and potentially reduce the risk of dementia.

The study’s first author, project scientist Cynthia Woo, said: “That’s why we reduced the number of scents to just seven, exposing participants to just one each time, rather than the multiple aromas used simultaneously in previous research projects. By enabling people to experience the odors while sleeping, we eliminated the need to set aside time for this during waking hours every day.”

The study’s results reinforce the link between smell and memory, as the olfactory sense is directly connected to the brain’s memory circuits. Unlike other senses that go through the thalamus first, aromas can evoke powerful recollections even from distant memories.

The researchers aim to explore the technique’s effects on individuals with diagnosed cognitive loss. They hope it will spur investigations into olfactory therapies for memory impairment. Based on the study’s findings, an at-home product is expected to be available in the market soon. The research received support from Procter & Gamble.

In conclusion, this study highlights the remarkable memory-boosting potential of sweet-smelling fragrances. By tapping into the power of scent-induced positive emotions, individuals may experience enhanced memory retention and cognitive function.

Further research is warranted to explore the underlying mechanisms behind this effect and to determine the optimal use of fragrance-based interventions in various practical settings. Nonetheless, the sweet smell of success in memory enhancement may be just a scent away.

Journal Reference:

  1. Cynthia C. Woo, Blake Miranda et al. Overnight olfactory enrichment using an odorant diffuser improves memory and modifies the uncinate fasciculus in older adults. Frontiers in Neuroscience.DOI:10.3389/fnins.2023.1200448.
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