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January 4, 2011

Alzheimer’s and Smell

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What your nose knows may help doctors tell if you're at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.This ScienCentral New video reports on new research, which adds to the growing body of knowledge about the connection between smell and Alzheimer's disease.


Robert Wilson, of Rush University Medical Center, gave smell tests to 600 incoming study volunteers aged 54 to 100. (The volunteers were all from the ongoing Rush Memory and Aging Project.) For the next five years, he gave the volunteers a battery of thinking and memory tests.

The smell test he used, which can be completed in about five minutes, assesses whether the participants can identify 12 familiar smells such as chocolate, rose and smoke. Each odor is released from the paper in the test booklet by scratching with a pencil, and then placed under the volunteer's nose. Wilson compared volunteers who scored below average (four or more errors) on the smell test with above average scorers (one or no errors).

The smell test takes about five minutes.
His study, published in the July 2007 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, found that people with the low scores were 50 percent more likely to develop certain memory and thinking problems, called Mild Cognitive Impairment or MCI. These symptoms are often an early stage of Alzheimer's.

Wilson says, "This suggests that problems with smelling even in healthy aging could be a very, very early sign of Alzheimer's disease."

This study builds on the work in two previous studies. In the first study, conducted in 2004, researcher Dev Devanand, of Columbia University Medical Center, found a link between low smell test scores and the likelihood of progression from MCI to Alzheimer's disease. In the second study, Wilson looked at the relationship between odor identification and Alzheimer's and discovered that odor impairment was linked to increased Alzheimer's disease pathology in the brain.

Devanand responded to Wilson’s current study: "This important study by Wilson and others in Chicago takes this research a step further by showing that odor identification deficits in cognitively intact older people predict subsequent decline in memory and other intellectual functions…What is remarkable is that deficits in identifying smells predicted cognitive decline even in healthy older people without cognitive deficits."

Wilson, whose own father has Alzheimer's, says, "It's one of the most pressing public health problems facing industrialized countries in this world now."

Wilson believes effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease will be developed in the near future. He says, "If we can actually slow down the progression of the disease or delay its onset it’ll be absolutely critical to be able to identify people who have the disease but are not yet showing the terrible problems with thinking and memory that devastate people's lives."

This study was published in the July 2007 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry and funded by National Institute on Aging and Illinois Department of Public Health.

       email to a friend by Sunita Reed

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