Research highlights

Olfactory meta-cognition in individuals with depressive and anxiety symptoms: the differential role of common and social odors

by Elisa Dal Bò, Claudio Gentili, Andrea Castellani, Carmen Tripodi, Florian Ph.S Fischmeister, Cinzia Cecchetto


Although we are mostly unaware of it, the sense of smell highly influences everyday life, as it plays a major role in food selection, in detecting potential hazards and also in social interaction. Moreover, the important role of olfaction for humans is shown by the impact of smell loss on health and quality of life. Decreased olfactory abilities have been reported in depression, whereas evidence in anxiety disorders is still controversial. Considerable variability has been found also in various meta-cognitive measures that assess how people interact with their daily olfactory environments. For example, the degree to which individuals tend to pick up olfactory stimuli and rely on them to guide their selective attitudes and actions or how odors affect the liking and memory for places, things and persons. These olfactory attitudes or abilities are related to the level of objective olfactory perception.

How do individuals with symptoms of anxiety or depression interact with odors in everyday life? Do they interact differently if the stimuli are body odors of known (or unknown) people?

To answer these questions, an online survey was conducted to determine the relationship between meta-cognitive olfactory abilities (awareness, imagination and importance given to odors) and depressive, anxiety and social anxiety symptoms in 429 healthy individuals. In particular, social odor awareness was investigated using a scale recently developed by our research group, the Social Odor Scale.

Symptoms of anxiety seem to be associated with higher levels of common odor awareness, corroborating the importance of olfactory functions in anxiety, whereas symptoms of depression seem to be related to a general reduction in the importance given to odors.

Regarding the attention and the awareness toward social odors, results show that higher symptoms of depression and lower symptoms of social anxiety are related to an increased awareness of these social stimuli.

These results highlight the different role of smell in psychopathology. The presence of altered meta-cognitive olfactory abilities may be an early symptom of a general reduction in olfactory abilities. Hence, the assessment of meta-cognitive abilities may represent a useful tool in the prevention and assessment of depressive, anxiety, and social anxiety symptoms.


Olfactory meta-cognition in individuals with depressive and anxiety symptoms: the differential role of common and social odors