Smells Like Memory Loss

Someday, doctors may be able to screen for Alzheimer’s using a simple scratch and sniff test, according to researchers at Columbia University. Dysfunctions in major olfactory functional domains, including odor detection, identification, and discrimination, appear prior to cognitive decline in patients with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD).1 Therefore, olfactory function tests may have potential to help identify cognitively normal adults at risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia before the onset of clinically detectable cognitive decline.

Dr. William Kreisl, a neurologist at Columbia University, and a team of researchers studied 84 people in their 60s and 70s, including 58 with memory problems indicative of early AD. Participants took the University of Pennsylvania Smell Identification Test, or UPSIT.2 The UPSIT is a test featuring a different “scratch and sniff” strip on each page of a booklet, including familiar smells such as coffee and cinnamon. Those who scored low on the test (less than 35) were three times more likely than other people (those who scored higher than 35) to experience memory decline.

Another study followed 397 people without dementia, whose average age was 80.3 The study found that low scores on the UPSIT test were a strong predictor of dementia.

Such an odor test is a non-invasive, less-costly alternative to PET scans and spinal taps, presently used to spot Alzheimer’s in its earliest stages. Detecting and treating the disease earlier could help slow cognitive decline.


  1. Kotecha AM, Corrêa ADC, Fisher KM, Rushworth JV. Olfactory dysfunction as a global biomarker for sniffing out Alzheimer’s disease: a meta-analysis. Biosensors (Basel). 2018;8: 41. doi: 10.3390/bios8020041
  2. William, MD, et al. “Both Odor Identification and Amyloid Status Predict Memory Decline in Older Adults.” Funded by the National Institute on Aging. 2016; July 26.
  3. Lee Seonjoo PhD, et al “Predictive Utility of Entorhinal Cortex Thinning and Odor Identification Test for Transition to Dementia and Cognitive Decline in an Urban Community Population.” Funded by the National Institute on Aging. 2016; July 26. Kreisl
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