• Aromatherapy might be able to improve memory and help treat depression

  • Depressed individuals better recalled specific personal memories after exposed to scents

  • These memories could help them rewire their thought patterns

Aromatherapy might be able to help people recover from depression by helping them more clearly recall specific, often positive, memories, a new study shows.

Scents are more effective than words at cueing up the memory of a specific event, researchers report Feb. 13 in the journal JAMA Network Open.

That could help depressed individuals shake negative thought cycles and rewire their thinking patterns, researchers said.

“If we improve memory, we can improve problem-solving, emotion regulation and other functional problems that depressed individuals often experience,” said senior researcher Kymberly Young, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

For the study, researchers asked 32 adults with major depressive disorder to recall a specific memory, no matter good or bad, as they breathed in glass vials containing potent familiar scents.

The scents ranged from oranges to ground coffee to shoe polish to the distinct eucalyptus sharpness of Vicks VapoRub.

Prior studies have found that people with major depression are less capable of drawing on specific memories from their lives, researchers said.

This might contribute to depression because patients will repeat self-denigrating thoughts like “I am a failure” or “I fight with my friends a lot.” They are unable to remember events that might demonstrate otherwise, researchers said.

Young, a neuroscience researcher, thought that the brain region known as the amygdala might be used to help break that cycle.

The amygdala controls the “fight or flight” response and helps direct attention and focus to specific events, researchers said.

Early in her career, Young realized that engaging the amygdala also helps with memory recall.

Evidence has shown that odors trigger memories that feel vivid and real because they directly engage the amygdala, researchers said.

“It was surprising to me that nobody thought to look at memory recall in depressed individuals using odor cues before,” Young said in a university news release.

Results show that memory recall was stronger in depressed individuals who received odor cues as opposed to word cues.

For example, they were more likely to recall specific events, like going to a coffee shop Friday, than general memories of having gone to a coffee shop before.

The memories spurred by odors also were significantly more vivid, immersive and real, the study found.

Participants also were more likely to remember positive events, even though they were given no direction regarding what to remember, researchers added.

The researchers next plan to use a brain scanner to prove that scents are indeed engaging the amygdala, and doing so better than word cues.

More information

The Society for Neuroscience has more about scent and the brain.

SOURCE: University of Pittsburgh, news release, Feb. 13, 2024