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Odor sensitivity impairment: a behavioral marker of psychological distress?

  • David C. Houghton (a1) (a2), Samuel L. Howard (a1), Thomas W. Uhde (a1), Caitlin Paquet (a1), Rodney J. Schlosser (a3) and Bernadette M. Cortese (a1)...



Enhanced odor sensitivity, particularly toward threat-related cues, may be adaptive during periods of danger. Research also suggests that chronic psychological distress may lead to functional changes in the olfactory system that cause heightened sensitivity to odors. Yet, the association between self-reported odor sensitivity, objective odor detection, and affective psychopathology is currently unclear, and research suggests that persons with affective problems may only be sensitive to specific, threat-related odors.


The current study compared adults with self-reported odor sensitivity that was described as functionally impairing (OSI; n = 32) to those who reported odor sensitivity that was non-impairing (OS; n = 17) on affective variables as well as quantitative odor detection.


Increased anxiety sensitivity, trait anxiety, depression, and life stress, even while controlling for comorbid anxiety and depressive disorders, was found for OSI compared to OS. While OSI, compared to OS, demonstrated only a trend increase in objective odor detection of a smoke-like, but not rose-like, odor, further analysis revealed that increased detection of that smoke-like odor was positively correlated with anxiety sensitivity.


These findings suggest that persons with various forms of psychological distress may find themselves significantly impaired by an intolerance of odors, but that self-reported odor sensitivity does not necessarily relate to enhanced odor detection ability. However, increased sensitivity to a smoke-like odor appears to be associated with sensitivity to aversive anxiogenic stimuli. Implications for the pathophysiology of fear- and anxiety-related disorders are discussed.


Corresponding author

*Address for correspondence: Bernadette M. Cortese, PhD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, The Medical University of South Carolina, 67 President Street, MSC 861, Charleston, SC 29425, USA. (Email:


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Funding for this study was provided by NIMH Grant K01 MH090548 (BMC).



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