Faint smells of schizophrenia

People who suffer from schizophrenia exhibit symptoms such as apathy, disorganized thinking, hallucinations, and delusions, as well as difficulties in discerning odors. According to a new study, olfactory problems can signal impending schizophrenia months before the ailment’s more disturbing symptoms kick in.

Neuropsychologist Warrick J. Brewer of Orygen Youth Health, a mental-health-research facility in Parkville, Australia, and his coworkers studied 81 teenagers and young adults considered at high risk for developing schizophrenia because they showed mild paranoia and other psychotic symptoms. The team also tested 31 young people with no psychiatric symptoms. Each volunteer tried to match a series of scratch-and-sniff smells.

The dozen high-risk participants who developed schizophrenia during the next 18 months had performed poorly on the odor test, Brewer’s group reports in the October American Journal of Psychiatry. The rest of the volunteers, including high-risk individuals who later developed other psychotic conditions, had had a much keener nose for smells.

The scientists theorize that schizophrenia, in its beginning stages, compromises the functioning of the brain’s frontal lobe, which contains tissue active in sensing smells.


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Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.