Scientists Just Invented a Medical Device that Can Smell For You – Yes, Really

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Imagine a life without smell: You can't get a whiff of fresh cookies or your favorite shampoo. You miss out on many of your favorite flavors. You're unable to detect when food is burning, or if there's a natural gas leak nearby.

For Scott Moorehead, CEO of The Cellular Connection, this is reality. Six years ago, a concussion left Moorehead without a sense of smell, according to Scientific American. And while this type of injury usually proves temporary, the lesions were too severe in Moorehead's case, so his loss is permanent – unless, that is, efforts at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) see success.

A Discrepancy in Sense Research

When it comes to sense science, vision and hearing account for the bulk of research. Olfactory neuroscientist Joel Mainland told Scientific American that while smell is one of the least-researched senses, it's also one of the most complicated, involving input from 400 types of sensory receptors (whereas taste takes 40, and vision involves three). While smell restoration treatments exist, none would suffice for someone with damage as extensive as Moorehead's.

But a team of scientists at VCU is working on a device that would trigger olfactory senses in people who have lost them – essentially a cochlear implant, but for smell instead of hearing.

Developing a Brain Implant

VCU and Harvard are collaborating to create this device, which would convert chemical scents into electrical signals. Research from Eric Holbrook, chief of rhinology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Hospital and Harvard Medical School associate professor, published research in February suggesting that electrical stimulation to the sinuses and nasal cavity can make a healthy person perceive an odor, even if it's not actually there.

While this information is far from actually restoring a person's lost sense of smell, it marks an important milestone in that research, as Holbrook told Scientific American.

The VCU-Harvard team aims to create a smell-restoring device that would fit under the nose or on a pair of glasses. It would feature an odor sensor, a small microprocessor on the outside and an internal mechanism to stimulate various parts of the olfactory bulb. Development is expected to take years, but VCU cochlear implant surgeon Daniel Coelho told Scientific American that it's possible.

"It's a pretty straightforward idea," Coelho said. "We're not inventing anything radically new."

People Who Suffer Anosmia

VCU News reported last year that Moorehead fell into a "deep depression" after losing his sense of smell, at which point he began seeking solutions. After several specialists told him there was nothing they could do, Moorehead caught wind of VCU's smell restoration research, and chose to invest.

"I've been given the opportunity to live this life and I ended up with only one permanent part of my injury. My brain works, my body works, everything works and I'm extremely grateful for that," Moorehead told VCU News. "It's not as much about me anymore. It's about other people who will experience the same things."

And plenty of those people are out there – in fact, according to the Monell Center, 12.4% of Americans over the age of 40 suffer from anosmia, or the complete or partial loss of smell. The center reports that of these adults:

  • 72% fear being exposed to danger.
  • 72% perceive their own body odor differently.
  • 66% feel more anxious than they did when they could smell.
  • 64% have experienced a decline in enjoyment of food.
  • 50% are angry about their condition.
  • 47% feel isolated.
  • 46% feel more vulnerable.
  • 38% have felt the effects in their romantic relationships.
  • 36% feel less motivated to eat.
  • 32% enjoy intimacy less.


About the Author

Brenna Swanston is a freelance writer, editor and journalist. She covers topics including environment, education and agriculture. She previously reported for the Sun newspaper in Santa Maria, Calif., and holds a bachelor's in journalism from California Polytechnic State University. Swanston is an avid traveler and loves jazz, yoga and craft beer.