Feature Sensory research

Scent trails

BMJ 2007; 335 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39315.453056.AD (Published 20 September 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;335:588
  1. Geoff Watts, freelance journalist
  1. London
  1. geoff{at}scileg.freeserve.co.uk

Smells form some of our most memorable experiences, but people who cannot detect them are largely forgotten. Geoff Watts sniffs out the researchers

Tell the world that you are blind or deaf or have no sense of touch and you can count on a measure of sympathy. But say that you have lost your sense of smell and the response will be, likely as not, indifference. We humans are not animals, are we? Of all our senses, smell is the least important.

Maybe so—but that is small consolation to people with the problem. Still more dispiriting for them is the lack of medical interest in disorders of smell, whether in treatment or research. Of the handful of UK clinicians with a special interest in the topic, two of the most active took it up more or less by chance and have to combine it with other work.

Unmet need

Evidence on the prevalence of olfactory disorders is patchy and conflicting. Tim Jacob, a physiologist who teaches a course on the senses at Cardiff University and also does research on smell, talks of American figures suggesting that around 2% of the population have a problem. But he can't be sure. He's on firmer ground when talking qualitatively.

“About 12 years ago,” he says, “I set up a website on smell. I was flooded with emails and phone calls from people who'd lost their sense of smell or taste. People who were desperate. People who felt that the health system had let them down. Their GPs had said there was nothing that could be done, and they should go away and just learn to cope.”

Affected people, it seems, aren't getting answers to even the …

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