The Power Of Smell

Do not underestimate your nose. This advice comes from Reading’s Dr Jane Parker who has joined a global team of experts to explore the potential link between loss of taste and smell with COVID-19.

Dr Parker, an Associate Professor of Flavour Chemistry from the Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences, has joined the Global Consortium of Chemosensory Researchers (GCCR) to investigate COVID-19 symptoms. Dr Parker tells CONNECTED about this study, and why your sense of smell is so important.

Understanding COVID-19 symptoms

The GCCR was set up in response to anecdotal reports of the loss of smell and taste in people who have tested positive for COVID-19. Dr Parker, who is a member of the GCCR UK scientific board, joins more than 500 clinicians, neurobiologists, data scientists, cognitive scientists, sensory researchers and technicians from 40 countries involved in the initiative. The main aim of the GCCR is to better understand the relationship between respiratory illnesses, such as COVID-19, and their effects on smell and taste.

Dr Parker explains:

“There is accumulating evidence that loss of smell and taste is associated with COVID-19, much of which is anecdotal or comes from small studies.

“The GCCR has launched an international questionnaire in 24 languages which looks specifically at understanding and distinguishing between the loss of smell, the loss of taste [specifically sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami], and chemesthesis which is the sensation we get from hot spices, cooling mints and peeling onions.”

The GCCR is conducting a worldwide survey for those who have recently suffered with COVID-19, another respiratory disease, or anyone who has recently experienced loss of smell. The survey, which takes around 10 minutes to complete and is available in more than 24 languages, will help the GCCR understand symptoms of the virus.

Dr Parker tells us: “We are actively calling for anyone who has either had COVID-19, or a sudden loss of smell or taste to fill in the GCCR survey.

“The more we understand the symptoms of COVID-19, the more we can help to control further spread of the disease.”

Curious facts about smell

If you are curious to learn more about the power of smell, then Dr Parker has put together some interesting facts about the nose.

“Noses make our everyday eating experience pleasant and interesting. It warns us of spoiled food, corked wine and the dangers of gas and smoke. It also evokes strong emotional reactions, influences sexual attraction and can be used as a sensitive analytical instrument.”

We taste with our nose

“Many people think that we do all of our tasting with our taste buds, but they can only detect if something is sweet, salty, bitter, sour or umami. The truth is, we also ‘taste’ with our nose, eyes and ears.

“The taste, or more correctly, the overall flavour we perceive as we mow our way through our favourite meal, is a combination of the signals that we receive from all our senses. It is the job of the brain to interpret these signals and tell us whether the food is up to scratch.

“These aromas are detected by receptors at the back of the nose that relay signals to the olfactory bulb where the signals are collated and sorted. The information is then sent to the brain which tells us the quality and intensity of the aromas [or smells] around us and in the food we eat. When we say we can’t taste food, we really mean that we can’t smell it.”

Not everyone can smell

About 5% of the population is anosmic, which means that they cannot smell. This can be devastating.

“Imagine that your food just doesn’t taste of anything apart from a bit sweet and a bit salty. Also, you can’t smell mouldy bread, sour milk or burning pizza – what if the house caught fire? And one question that haunts anosmics is: do I smell? These anxieties often lead to an insular lifestyle, depression and a decline in mental health.”

You don’t need an olfactory bulb to smell

Some people are born without an olfactory bulb, the organ that was previously believed to be essential for the perception of smell.

“While carrying out brain imaging, a group of researchers realised that one of their normal control subjects had no apparent olfactory bulb, yet they obtained normal scores for standardised smell tests. They discovered that 0.6% of all women can smell perfectly well without an olfactory bulb. This rises to 4.3% in left-handed women. But if you are a man without an olfactory bulb, the evidence so far suggests that you are destined to a lifetime of tasteless food.”

Viral infections can rewire your sense of smell

The common cold is a well-known thief of our sense of smell, albeit usually temporarily. Yet for some people, their sense of smell doesn’t return after a viral infection such as the common cold, a sinus infection or upper respiratory tract infection. Recovery can take several years and is not guaranteed.

“Most people develop parosmia [an inability of the brain to properly identify a smell] during the early stages of recovery, when a few everyday smells return but with a badly distorted and usually repulsive character. These new smells are incredibly hard to define, but attempts to describe these sensations often include words like burnt, foul, rotten or sewage.

“Coffee, chocolate and meat seem to be repeat offenders. Researchers believe that as the damaged olfactory neurons are slowly regenerated or repaired, the distortions are a result of cross-wiring in the olfactory bulb. Exactly how this happens, though, remains a mystery.”

Smell training is better than sudoku

An exercise that helps anosmics to regain their sense of smell is “smell training”.

“Researchers believe that systematically exercising the olfactory neurons stimulates growth and repair, much in the same way that physiotherapy promotes injury healing. The technique was pioneered in Germany and involves actively sniffing [and concentrating] on different smells at least twice a day for several months.

“In a recent study of older people, smell training was shown not just to improve their olfactory function but also their verbal function and overall wellbeing, demonstrating that smell training is a good way to improve the quality of life in older people. What is remarkable is that the control group was given sudoku puzzles to complete twice a day during the experiment, suggesting that smell training is more effective than sudoku on these measures.”

Humans can track scents like a dog

Have you ever been amazed at the ability of dogs to follow scent trails and wondered why we can’t?

“Research in 2017 showed that, in fact, we can. We don’t have the advantage of the optimised airflow through a dog’s nose, but if we practise a bit and get down to the level of a dog’s nose, we can effectively track a trail of chocolate aroma laid across a field.”

Find out more about Dr Parker’s research.

This article was first published in The Conversation on 16 January 2020.