In patients with depression, familiar scents could help trigger happy memories, study finds: ‘Break the cycle’

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A familiar scent could help individuals with depression recall memories more easily than verbal cues, a recent study published in JAMA Network Open noted.

For people with major depressive disorder (MDD), a familiar smell might help them recall autobiographical memories and potentially help with mental health treatment, according to a group of researchers and social workers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Depression has been linked to issues with short-term memory, according to Healthline.

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“The main takeaway from the study is that individuals with depression do have specific memories and positive memories, but they just have trouble accessing them,” study co-author Dr. Kymberly Young, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry and neuroscience researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, told Fox News Digital. 

“By using odors, we can help them access these memories.”

Woman aromatherapy

A familiar scent could help individuals with depression recall memories more easily than verbal cues, according to a recent study. (iStock)

The findings suggest that using familiar scents in clinical settings could help to stop negative thought patterns and expedite healing, according to the report. 

“Being able to access specific memories is important for problem-solving and emotion regulation — if we can help individuals with depression to access specific memories, they should be able to use them when needed and improve their quality of life,” Young said.

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In healthy individuals, scents could trigger memories that feel vivid and “real” — likely because they engage the part of the brain called the amygdala, which plays a role in processing memory and emotional responses, according to a press release from the university. 

“Memories accessed by a familiar scent tend to be very vivid, with a more intense feeling of being ‘real,’ likely due at least in part to the engagement of emotions via the amygdala,” Dr. Krystine Batcho, PhD, a licensed psychologist ad professor at Le Moyne University in Syracuse, New York, explained to Fox News Digital. 

Batcho was not involved with the study.

Man and girl smelling croissants

Memories cued by scents were more specific than the ones sparked by verbal cues, the investigators found in a new study. (iStock)

As Young told Fox News Digital, anyone could use scents as a means of recalling vivid and specific memories.

“Sit with an odor and really focus on the memory and try to relive it,” Young suggested. 

“Practice recalling these types of memories so that when you need to recall one in daily life — for things like problem-solving and emotion regulation — you will easily be able to do so.”

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In the study, the team of researchers looked at 32 individuals between 18 and 55 years of age who had a diagnosis of MDD. 

The participants were given 12 samples of scents in opaque glass jars. They were then asked to recall a specific memory for each of 12 different words. 

Each person rated the memory as positive or negative, and also rated the level of arousal and vividness. The individuals also indicated whether they thought of the memory often or not until that particular moment, according to the study.

Candles and incense

Recalling vivid and specific memories using odors could theoretically be used by anyone to improve their memory, a researcher told Fox News Digital. (iStock)

Memories cued by odors were more specific than the ones sparked by verbal cues, the investigators found.

Participants also tended to recall more positive memories and fewer negative ones, and they rated these memories as more arousing and vivid when using odor cues compared to verbal cues.

“This study just shows that odors are effective at cuing memories when words are not,” Young said.

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Although the investigators did not measure depressive symptoms nor expect them to change in this short study, Young noted that improving memory recall should boost problem-solving and emotion regulation and might help to alleviate depression. 

“This is a future direction for this work, now that we know smells are such effective cues in these patients,” he told Fox News Digital. 

Woman smelling laundry

Improving memory recall should improve problem-solving and emotion regulation and might improve depression, an expert said. (iStock)

Batcho, the psychologist from Le Moyne University, noted that fragrance is an especially powerful trigger for retrieving autobiographical memories.  

“While verbal material is also able to retrieve memories, words function at a higher, more abstract level than sensory stimuli,” she told Fox News Digital. “Depression can trap a person in a counterproductive cycle of sadness by triggering sad memories.”

“Reliving the best times can help break the depression cycle and begin to restore more positive thoughts and feelings.” 

Certain types of memories are likely to be more beneficial in alleviating depression, the expert said.

“Reliving the best times can help break the depression cycle and begin to restore more positive thoughts and feelings,” Batcho said.

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“Nostalgic memories have been shown to elevate mood, buffer anxiety, counteract loneliness and strengthen social connectedness,” she went on. “Fragrances associated with positive past experiences would be the most effective in retrieving nostalgic memories.”

Specific fragrances are often associated with people, places or special occasions that bring joy, according to the expert.

“Our mother’s favorite perfume, the fragrance of flowers in the garden where we fell in love, or the aroma of holiday foods can revive the positive feelings we once enjoyed,” she said.

Sick teen

“It can be hard for people who are suffering from depression to remember things other than sad memories,” a psychologist told Fox News Digital.  (iStock)

Dr. Nancy Frye, PhD, a professor of psychology at Long Island University in Brookville, New York, who was not involved with the study, commented on the significance of the findings.

“It can be hard for people who are suffering from depression to remember things other than sad memories,” she told Fox News Digital. 

“We’re better able to remember things that match the mood we’re currently in, according to the mood-congruent memory effect,” Frye said. “So it’s easier to remember happy memories when we’re happy, and it’s easier to remember sad memories when we’re sad.”

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“This research gives a promising direction to look in to help people with depression.”

Based on this initial study, the researchers aim to complete larger studies with healthy control groups to further investigate the link between scents and memories in those with depression.

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