Smell memory being studied in relationship to dementia

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"You must learn to heed your senses. Humans use but a tiny percentage of theirs. They barely look, they rarely listen, they never smell, and they think that they can only experience feelings through their skin. But they talk, oh, do they talk." - Michael Scott, "The Alchemyst"

What do you think about when you smell apple pie? Thanksgiving, Grandma peeling apples to make the pie, ice cream?

The memories could be endless.

The sense of smell is closely linked with memory, probably more so than any of our other senses.

Those with full olfactory function might be able to think of smells that evoke particular memories: the scent of an orchard in blossom conjuring up recollections of a childhood picnic, or the smell of a perfume or men's cologne could evoke memories of a first date, the name of the person, even where the first date might have been.

All your other senses must pass through a separate region in the brain before they are able to be processed.

With the sense of smell, the olfactory cortex is lined directly to the amygdala and the hippocampus, which are key components of the limbic system.

The limbic system is responsible for a complex host of information processing that impacts the way we make daily choices, including how we feel about ourselves.

In short, the things we smell tend to stay with us. They become a part of our emotional memories and can be retrieved in the form of emotional response.

Researchers have asked: What if the smell memory was gone?

Would that mean the memories associated with that part of the brain would be locked away forever?

Could identity loss associated with dementia be rooted in the loss of olfactory memory?

Researchers in Sweden have conducted a first of its kind, 20-year study exploring the role that olfaction impairment has on people with the gene that is a risk factor for late-onset dementia of the Alzheimer's type (the Apolipoprotein E gene.)

In the study, elderly people with this gene suffered from a loss of sense of smell and memory loss. Elderly people who did not have this gene had no such correlation between the losses of the two.

The researchers suspect that the gene might be responsible somehow for the loss of both.

If this is the case, it might be possible for new research to uncover ways to address the suppression of that gene or to develop an enzyme that counters its effects and possibly reverses them.

It is hoped that, as more studies uncover potential solutions, the epidemic of dementia will one day be a part of the past.

It could be that evocative smells play a more crucial role than we know in memory and the progression of symptoms associated with dementia.

Until then, Memory Matters continues to focus on all things related to memory - from early intervention with program like Brain Boosters, early diagnosis with our Connections program, to mid-stage with our Compass programs.

For more information call 843-842-6688 or visit mymemorymatters.org.

Karen Doughtie is senior program director of Memory Matters, serving Bluffton and Hilton Head. karen@memory-matters.org; mymemorymatters.org

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