Familiar Scents May Ease Depression

Smelling a familiar scent can successfully trigger positive memories in those with depression and potentially help with healing, new research has found.

An inability to recall specific personal memories is a common symptom of major depressive disorder (MDD) — which affects more than 21 million American adults every year — but new research has found that familiar scents may be an effective way to regain these memories.

The small study, published in JAMA Network Open, found that scents are more effective at triggering specific, detailed memories than word cues and that smells may be used to help reframe negative thought patterns in those with depression.


This is the result of engaging the amygdala, a part of the brain that’s responsible for processing emotions related to the senses and memories.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine researchers and UPMC social workers conducted the study by presenting participants with glass vials containing objects that have strong, potentially familiar smells, including oranges, ground coffee, shoe polish, and Vicks VapoRub. The participants were then asked to think of a specific memory — either good or bad — that they associated with the smell, meaning a single event that occurred at an identified place within a 24-hour period. They were then given word cues and asked to do the same thing.

Ultimately, odor cues were found to be more likely to trigger recollection of specific memories as opposed to words, and the memories associated with the scents were also described as far more “vivid” and “arousing.” The scents were also more likely to trigger positive memories than negative ones in respondents.

“These preliminary results could have implications for furthering management options for MDD,” the authors said in the study. “Several interventions targeting increasing memory specificity in patients with MDD have shown positive results, suggesting that improving autobiographical specificity may lead to reduced depressive symptoms.”

Lead author and neuroscience researcher who studies autobiographical memories, Dr. Kimberly Young, plans to use a brain scanner to validate the results of this study.

In a news release, Young said: “If we improve memory, we can improve problem solving, emotion regulation and other functional problems that depressed individuals often experience.”

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