Scenting our way to wellbeing

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  • Mental health
  • Health & wellbeing
  • Technology

Smell, the only sense we can’t switch off, has an unexpected role to play in tackling our epidemic of anxiety and depression. Dr Jenny Tillotson, FRSA, talks about a transformative technology that could help us approach our emotions in a new way, and help humanity recover from the pandemic 

The world faces an acute mental health crisis with around 500 million people suffering with anxiety and depression. Addiction and suicide are at an all-time high and loneliness has reached epidemic proportions.

Lockdowns and growing environmental emergencies only add to the collective anxiety. Add in masks (moisture-retaining and uncomfortable to wear, as well as setting up psychological barriers and polluting the oceans) and it’s no surprise many NHS staff are suffering PTSD and burn-out. But with the mask problem comes an unexpected solution, a way to actually enhance our mental health.

MIND recommends adding a comforting scent, such as lavender, to masks to reduce anxiety. Our research has gone further, developing a reusable and comfortable protector which uses the nose as a route for therapy. By combining the ancient art of perfumery with emerging technologies, we aim to revolutionise how we use our sense of smell.

Smell is the most complex and least understood of the senses, the one sense we can’t switch off. We breathe 23,000 times a day, so we smell all the time, even during sleep. It’s our most primitive sense, used by our ancestors to anticipate danger, detect illness and forage for food. Scent also links to our emotions in terms of how they are processed in the brain, to heighten our reality of life.

With every breath, we take air into our lungs, and this is vital information that helps us feel before we think. 75% of the emotions we generate daily are affected by smell and because of this, we are more likely to remember a scent than a photograph, a sound or a texture. According to one mice study, scent can treat PTSD by modulating the dynamics of memory consolidation, including memories linked to fear. A scent can induce a positive thought and emotional memory, one that reduces anxiety and makes us feel comfortable.

Like many people with anxiety, I use essential oils to de-stress, promote mental flexibility and boost resilience. But this positive reaction is often delayed. My moment of calm rarely happens at the right moment to help my mood. So I created eScent, an intelligent way of dispensing fragrances (and other liquids) bio-synchronisedto the physical and emotional state of the wearer.

How does it work?

A localised scent bubble is released when smart sensors, embedded with AI and voice analytics, detect increases in stress and other physical indicators. Working with companion devices, eScent delivers evidenced-based blended aromas such as neroli and lavender as a preventative psychological safety net.

Using green alternatives to ethanol, eScent emits a cloud of scent that changes moment by moment, and ‘switches on’ smell molecules. We’ve also developed a re-usable FPP3 mask, releasing a personalised and renewable scent; self-delivered biofeedback for mental distress. This meeting of ‘digital olfaction’ and wearable technology (eScent can also be embedded in AR/VR headsets, smart jewellery and clothing) promises to be a huge growth area in predictive and preventive healthcare.

It might be used in dementia care to reduce aggression and encourage appetite, in nebulisers for nasal vaccines, for asthma drugs or palliative care. It could be used in CBT, or breathwork, in mindfulness meditation, and in tandem with music or psychedelic-assisted therapy. And there are opportunities in education and gaming. Excitingly, it has caught the attention of the global ENT community as offering higher protectionvia a liquid delivery system to help combat future viruses.

Although Covid-19 has caused havoc worldwide, ENT surgeons say it’s a relatively mild, relatively easily prevented, viral pandemic. The root causes of it: climate change, habitat destruction, increasing human population and high mobility have not changed. Next time things could be worse. What happens when something as devastating as Ebola arises, but spreads as easily as Omicron? Smart technologies such as eScent can work in two ways, delivering medication while preventing the airborne spread of the virus.

There are many possibilities. If we combine filtration of air from a hostile environment with nebulised antiviral medication in a wearable device, we might do away with hazmat suits. Meanwhile, twinning stress-reducing aromas with breathwork techniques such as box breathing or 4-7-8 could reduce anxiety in real-time.

Further work is needed to assess the effectiveness or otherwise of viral attachment inhibitors in vitro, then in vivo and to quantify stress reduction by olfactory cues. This new delivery system needs to be put to the test and so I’m looking for partners within the RSA Network to help move this project forward.

Dr Jenny Tillotson is a visiting researcher at the University of Cambridge, Department of Psychiatry. Her research spans spans neuroscience, design, scent, biotechnology, complementary therapies and AI and combines wearable technology with biometric and connected sensors

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