Anosmia: lives without sense of smell

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This podcast was produced, and is introduced, by Jo Barratt, of Life in Scents, a regular podcast on things olfactory.

Anosmia is the inability to smell. It’s what blindness is to sight, or deafness is to hearing. It can occur after a severe head injury, as a precursor to degenerative brain disease such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, or as a result of nasal inflammatory infections or polyps. Some people are born with the condition and sometimes people simply don’t recover their sense of smell after a cold or flu virus.

It is thought than anosmia affects about 3% of the population, although it is possible that 1 in 10 suffer from it to some extent. The effects on people’s lives can be serious and are under appreciated, if not entirely unknown.

This podcast is from a talk Anosmia: lives without sense of smell by Eléonore de Bonneval at Birkbeck, University of London on 10 May 2013, and follows a photography exhibition of the same name at London College of Communication at the beginning of the year.
© Eléonore de Bonneval

© Eléonore de Bonneval

Eléonore starts by talking about why smell is important,, and asks us to consider the possibility of a world without it. She follows with a number of individuals’ experiences drawn form the interviews and photography sessions that made up her project.

Eléonore de Bonneval’s project is ongoing. If you suffer from anosmia and would like to take an active part, do get in touch with Eleonore at contact@edebonneval.co.uk.

The presentation:

Eléonore de Bonneval: I’m a photo journalist and this is a project I started a few years ago. In my first Master’s degree I specialised in smells.

Smell has always been important for me. Last year I was doing another MA in photojournalism. I was speaking to a tutor, saying how come we talk about people who are blind, or deaf but there are also people who can’t smell . Thinking of how important smell is for me, what would life be like without a sense of smell. It would be bad and peculiar.

So I started looking at smell.

In this presentation the first section will be about what smells are, and why they are important to our daily life, what do they mean to us. And the second part is testimonials from people I interviewed who suffer from the condition, anosmia.

First of all I’d like to ask you – what is your favourite smell?

Audience member: Lemon, honeysuckle. I used to go in the car and my mother would say, ‘can you smell the honeysuckle? So perhaps I was influenced by my mother, but I just loved the smell of it. It makes me feel excited if I know there is going to be the smell of honeysuckle. Does anyone else like honeysuckle?

Another audience member: Yes, it’s the smell of summer.

Eléonore de Bonneval: And what smells do you hate the most?

Audience member: Boiling cabbage. Cauliflower. Human sweat – some people do smell. I hate sitting next to someone on the bus who smells of smoke. If they only knew what they smell like!

Eléonore de Bonneval: Let’s go back to more pleasant smells….

In this first section I am looking at emotions and memories. You mentioned honeysuckle and your mother. That emotional context, the smell taking you back to the car, to your mother. It reminds you of the context, being a kid, being excited. The sense of smell is very directly linked to our emotions, linked to the long term memory part of the brain.

As a photo journalist, the project I undertook, looking and taking photos of things that you smell or evoke a sense of smell. Who doesn’t remember the smell of their teddy bear or an old sheet that they had when they were a child. The connection you have to whatever it was , it’s very strong. My mother used to wear L’air du Temps by Nina Ricci and I went back to my cupboards and tried to find a bottle of that specific perfume again. Who doesn’t remember the smell of mum or dad, a very distinct smell. It’s like being held, and looked after. Going to school, sharpening pencils, that has a distinctive smell, too

So smell is about context. For example, it brings you back to the car you were in, it’s about your whole environment. It can be difficult to describe a smell, it’s so personal.

Just so you understand better how the sense of smell happens. You detect a smell, the olfactory neurones generate an impulse, and it goes along the olfactory nerve. When the olfactory receives it, it processes it and it goes to the limbic system. What is the limbic system? It’s really important because it is the part of the brain that connects most directly with memories and emotions. And the sense of smell is the only sense that goes directly through the limbic system, before going into the more analytic part of the brain. All the other senses go through the analytic part of your brain before going to the emotional part. That’s why when you smell something it brings you back to that emotional context before you process the information and your brain tells you how you should feel. Sometimes it’s happy memories, but sometimes it’s memories you don’t want triggered, memories that make you cringe or that remind you of somebody you’d rather not be reminded of. With the other senses, you analyse them before you are moved by them.

Another interesting thing about the sense of smell is that there is a direct connection with taste. If you were to lose your sense of smell you’d also ultimately lose your sense of taste or the flavour from your sense of taste. You’d keep some tastes, but only the basic ones of bitter, salt, sour, sweet. The rest is linked to your sense of smell. Chocolate – you couldn’t taste it, you’d just have the texture of that milk in your mouth, but what would chocolate taste like? Toast – that amazing smell of toast that we all adore, you couldn’t smell it. But that also means you couldn’t smell when it was burnt. And having lunch with friends isn’t much fun if you can’t appreciate what you’re eating. Being down the pub – beer – bitter, cold, but….. And what about barbeque, the smell, the excitement of your barbeque on the fire , then eating your sausages.

One of the reasons for the connection between smell and taste is olfaction, particularly when you eat something – it goes through your olfactory membrane and then it goes into your olfactory nerve system and then into your limbic system.

Looking at the picture of Nathalie having lunch and thinking about food and friends, smell has an essential role in our relationship with others. Your granddad, your father or mother. For women, you’re getting ready, putting lipstick on, perfume – men, too – going out. The smell of feet (not much fun!) but not being able to smell your own odour, do you smell or not, is quite disturbing

The other section I identify as important with smell is that breathing space, being outdoors. You were speaking about honeysuckle, and we could talk about pollution, cars – but you can certainly identify nature.

One difficult thing about the sense of smell is that it is a mute and invisible sense. It’s hard to describe it, or find the right words, unless, of course, you are a perfumier or a sommelier or work in the wine industry. Then you have descriptives by which you can clearly identify a smell. But how often, for example, do you talk about smells to people you know? Emotion is triggered. It’s very personal, you don’t feel you can share it. And it’s invisible, you can’t see it or touch it. You can smell it, but that’s it.

……..

Let’s turn to people with anosmia. You may be able to relate to it when your sinuses are blocked, and you can’t enjoy your food. That is viral anosmia. Anosmia is to smelling what blindness is to sight, or deafness is to hearing. I am going to share with you some stories of the people I have interviewed.

Zoe suffered from an infection and lost her sense of smell. She got very depressed. She described it as wearing a neoprene layer all the time, she felt completely disconnected from everyone and from her environment. She really struggled. She got depressed. We estimate that 50% of those who suffer from anosmia also suffer from depression. Recent studies have shown a link between depression and a diminishing sense of smell – it could be a direct correlation. Zoe felt isolated. Even with her husband and son she’d have her lunch on the staircase, hearing them in the kitchen, but she couldn’t join them because she wouldn’t enjoy it. It was very depressing for her. She has now recovered to about 80%.

Nadia has congenital anosmia. She has never been able to smell. So if you talk to her about the smell of the sea, she just doesn’t understand you at all.

Most GPs are dismissive about anosmia. Lots of people don’t know about the condition and you’d be surprised that even in the medical sphere some people are not aware of it.

Dr Carl Philpott, who works in Norwich is one of the few people who has made a study of anosmia. He can treat about 75% of the people who come to his clinic, which is a high percentage. Most of the people I interviewed were angry about not having any support with their condition.

Raj went on holiday to Greece and fell down in the hotel complex. He recovered from everything except his sense of smell. There was some displacement in his brain. The nervous system was blocked.

Duncan also had a head injury. He fell down the stairs and lost his sense of smell. One interesting thing Duncan said, and it links to Zoe’s experience, was that for him it was like living through a glass window – you’re here, you’re with everyone, but you can’t really share social interaction with others. You’re in a bubble, you can see everything, touch everything, but you can’t smell.

Francine has now recovered, but she couldn’t smell for 6 years. She had polyps. 6 years is the age of her son, so until recently she was unable to smell her son. One summer it was really warm, she was giving her son some milk but fortunately a friend came along and told her the milk was off. She had not been able to detect that it was curdled, it could have bad consequences for the health of her baby. From then on she got really scared of feeding him. Being a single mum at the time, it was worrying and early on her son detected she was scared as well. She wanted to give him healthy food, but all he wanted was rice or pasta with ketchup, and that is what she ended up cooking for him – not a very healthy diet.

Debbie has been losing her sense of smell gradually and describes it as a curtain coming down. She says she doesn’t enjoy going to a restaurant or drinking wine any more. She was amusing about having a glass of wine – “I’m a cheap night out now!” she said, because she doesn’t know if the wine is good or not. She also suffered from phantosmia – smells blocked in your olfactory system, unidentified wafts of smells, once in a while, and you don’t know why. It can be scary. Zoe also suffered from that, vague chemical smells and you don’t know what they are or where they are coming from, but you can’t stop it, and it’s quite oppressive.

Mark has congenital anosmia. He says he sometimes wonders if he is a normal guy. He regards anyone with a sense of smell as having a superpower! It is completely random to him that a smell can trigger a memory out of thin air.

Moira is 89 and has lost her sense of smell from age. What worries her is that maybe she is cooking and she doesn’t know what is the smell of her house. Does it smell fresh and clean, or does it smell of stale lunch food. A few of my interviewees have also been concerned about gas leaks, and have put gas detectors in their homes.

So, there are lots of reasons for losing your sense of smell – one is that it is an early sign of degenerative brain disease , Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, another a head trauma, then there are polyps, failure to recover from a cold or flu, or it can just be age related. There are no proper statistics, but about 200,000 people in the UK are thought to suffer from anosmia, with 5000 of those being congenital – people who have never been able to smell.

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