• Health and Wellness
  • School of Medicine
Accolades & Honors

Pitt researchers’ findings on how scent may help depressed people were published in JAMA Network Open

Snow falls on a panther statue's face

University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine researchers and UPMC social workers found in a study that smelling a familiar scent might help depressed individuals recall specific autobiographical memories and potentially assist in their recovery. Their discovery was recently published in JAMA Network Open.

The study showed scents are more effective than words at cuing a memory of a specific event and could even be used in the clinical setting to help depressed individuals get out of negative thought cycles and rewire thought patterns, aiding faster and smoother healing.

Early in her career, Kymberly Young, an associate professor of psychiatry who studies autobiographical memories, realized engaging the amygdala — the reptilian brain that controls not only “fight or flight” responses but also directs attention and focus to important events — helps with memory recall.

She also knew of extensive evidence that people with depression have a hard time recalling specific autobiographical memories and that, in healthy individuals, scents trigger memories that feel vivid and “real,” likely because they directly engage the amygdala through nerve connections from the olfactory bulb.

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

Other authors of the Pitt Medicine study are Scott Barb, Gia Canovali, Laurie Compere, Sair Lazzaro, Emily Leiker, Emma Riley and Carolyn Webb, all of Pitt and UPMC.

Read more from UPMC.