Neuroscientists have discovered a non-invasive technique to enhance memory in older adults using nightly aromatherapy. The project, conducted through the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory (CNLM) at the University of California, Irvine, demonstrates the powerful link between the olfactory sense and the brain’s memory circuits, providing a potential solution to combat cognitive decline and dementia.
As the world grapples with the challenges of an aging population and an increasing prevalence of cognitive decline, this study presents a ray of hope in the quest to improve memory and cognitive function in older adults.
The research, titled “Scentful Slumbers: Enhancing Memory in Older Adults Through Nightly Aromatherapy,” spanned over six months and involved male and female participants aged 60 to 85 without any pre-existing memory impairment. Researchers presented the subjects with a diffuser and seven cartridges, each containing a distinct natural oil.
Participants were divided into two groups – the enriched group and the control group. The enriched group received full-strength cartridges, while the control group received the oils in smaller amounts. Each evening, before going to bed, participants would place a different cartridge into their diffuser, which activated for two hours as they slept.
The results of the study were astonishing. Participants in the enriched group experienced an unprecedented 226% increase in cognitive performance compared to their counterparts in the control group, as measured by a standard word list memory test. Furthermore, neuroimaging revealed that the enriched group showed better integrity in the left uncinate fasciculus, a brain pathway connecting the medial temporal lobe to the decision-making prefrontal cortex. This pathway is known to become less robust with age, but aromatherapy appeared to rejuvenate its functionality.
Lead researcher Michael Leon, a distinguished professor of neurobiology & behavior and a CNLM fellow, commented on the significance of the findings, “The reality is that over the age of 60, the olfactory sense and cognition start to fall off a cliff. But it’s not realistic to think people with cognitive impairment could open, sniff, and close 80 odorant bottles daily. This would be difficult even for those without dementia.”
The innovative aspect of the study lies in its delivery of aromas during sleep, eliminating the need for participants to allocate additional time during their waking hours. Project scientist Cynthia Woo, the first author of the study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, elaborated on the approach: “By making it possible for people to experience the odors while sleeping, we eliminated the need to set aside time for this during waking hours every day.”
The connection between smell and memory has long been established, with olfactory capacity loss being predictive of various neurological and psychiatric diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. This research offers a potential solution to memory enhancement and potentially serves as a defense against dementia.
Professor Michael Yassa, chair in the neurobiology of learning and memory and collaborating investigator of the study, highlighted the significance of the olfactory sense in memory recollection: “The olfactory sense has the special privilege of being directly connected to the brain’s memory circuits. All the other senses are routed first through the thalamus. Everyone has experienced how powerful aromas are in evoking recollections, even from very long ago.”
As the scientific community gains a deeper understanding of the intricate connections between smell and memory, this study marks a significant milestone in the pursuit of effective and non-invasive strategies to enhance memory and combat cognitive decline in older adults.
The research team is now enthusiastic about investigating the impact of this technique on individuals with diagnosed cognitive loss, aiming to further explore olfactory therapies for memory impairment.