The Transformative Power of Scent in Treating Depression

April 2nd, 2024

By John Patterson

Staff Writer for Wake Up World

In an enlightening study conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine alongside UPMC social workers, a fascinating discovery was made that could pave a new path in treating depression. Published in JAMA Network Open, this groundbreaking research unveils the potent ability of familiar scents to help individuals with depression recall specific autobiographical memories, offering a glimmer of hope for those caught in the grips of this challenging condition.

The Science of Scent and Memory

It’s no secret that smells can transport us back in time, evoking vivid memories of past events with remarkable clarity. However, this study delves deeper into this phenomenon, particularly focusing on its implications for individuals suffering from depression. “It was surprising to me that nobody thought to look at memory recall in depressed individuals using odor cues before,” remarked Dr. Kymberly Young, the senior author of the study and an associate professor of psychiatry at Pitt.

Engaging the Amygdala

Dr. Young, a neuroscience researcher specializing in autobiographical memories, has long understood the importance of engaging the amygdala. This part of the brain, often called the reptilian brain, is crucial for processing emotions, attention, and memories. Thanks to nerve connections from the olfactory bulb, odors have a direct line to the amygdala, making scents incredibly potent in triggering vivid and ‘real’ memories.

The Study’s Findings

The research team presented participants with opaque glass vials filled with potent, familiar scents, ranging from oranges and ground coffee to shoe polish and Vicks VapoRub. After smelling the vial, participants were asked to recall a memory, regardless of its nature. Astonishingly, the study found that memory recall was significantly stronger in depressed individuals who received odor cues than in those who received word cues. Moreover, these odor-evoked memories were more likely specific to an event and felt more vivid and immersive.

The Potential for Clinical Application

The implications of these findings are vast. By utilizing scents in a clinical setting, it may be possible to help individuals with depression break free from negative thought cycles and rewire their thought patterns, thereby facilitating a smoother and faster healing process.

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

A Step Towards Innovative Treatments

While Dr. Young is gearing up for more advanced studies using brain scanners to further prove the efficacy of scents in engaging the amygdala of depressed individuals, the initial findings already mark a significant step forward. The study highlights the unique power of scent in evoking specific and vivid memories and opens up new avenues for therapeutic interventions.


The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s study sheds light on an often-overlooked sense – smell – and its profound impact on mental health. As we continue to explore the intricate connections between our senses and psychological well-being, this research offers a hopeful perspective on treating depression. By harnessing the nostalgic power of familiar scents, we may soon be able to offer individuals suffering from depression a natural and deeply personal tool for recovery.

Journal Reference:

  1. Emily K. Leiker, Emma Riley, Scott Barb, Sair K. Lazzaro, Laurie Compère, Carolyn Webb, Gia Canovali, Kymberly D. Young. Recall of Autobiographical Memories Following Odor vs Verbal Cues Among Adults With Major Depressive DisorderJAMA Network Open, 2024; 7 (2): e2355958 DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.55958

About the author:

John Patterson is an avid writer and researcher who delves into the latest scientific research. With an insatiable curiosity, he translates complex concepts into accessible narratives, allowing readers to embark on a journey of discovery. John bridges the gap between experts and the public through his work, igniting curiosity and inspiring meaningful conversations about scientific breakthroughs.

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