Smell, Memory, and Brain Medicine

It’s summer, and it never ceases to amaze me how the scent of honeysuckle still stops me in my tracks. It grew rampant in the neighborhood where I grew up, coiling along the bike paths and parks where my sister and I spent all of our days and evenings (until the street lights came on). We were what they now call free-range kids, and it immediately brings back memories of those times. I always stop to smell the honeysuckle.

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The sense of smell is the only sense that takes a direct path into the brain, and it is that reason that scent can be such a powerful stimulus. We breathe over 23,000 times per day, and each time we breathe, we smell. The scents around us travel right through the nose and into the olfactory center of the brain itself – directly linked to memory.

Science is figuring out how to harness that sense for better health and for diagnostics. Although decrease in the sense of smell is common in aging (and more common in non-Caucasian populations), it can also be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

But can we use smell for better health? Proponents of essential oils say yes (and scientists have backed them up).

What smells boost your brain? Cinnamon is shown to increase attention span and focus. Peppermint can also increase concentration. Pine can decrease depression. Lavender can help you sleep. And Frankincense is one of the most fascinating oils for the brain. Frankincense can aid oxygenation of blood to the brain (studies say more than 25%).

Frankincense contains a compound called sesquiterpenes that can cross the blood-brain barrier, and it is being used in studies for treatment of brain tumors, stroke, and traumatic brain injury. It’s even being used to boost memory.

The studies are new and not conclusive, but might it be worth it to add essential oils to a treatment plan? Seems like as a complementary treatment, it certainly can’t hurt.

In health,
Mariska

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