Published: 10-10-2023 09:13 | Updated: 04-04-2024 09:13

Studying the sense of smell and its significance to health

The human sense of smell is both well-developed and important to our health. Johan Lundström is trying to unpack a sense that has long been neglected by science.

Professor Johan Lundström. Photo: Erik Flyg

What are you researching?

“I’m researching how our sense of smell works, and diagnoses and treatments when it does not. The human sense of smell has long been considered weak and unimportant, and has been neglected by researchers. But over the past decade, my research and the work of other researchers have shown that it is highly developed and is of great significance to our health.”

What does your research entail?

“Our focus is on understanding how olfactory impressions are processed by the brain. We have developed a method for measuring brain activity in the olfactory bulbs, which are the part of the olfactory brain that first process a smell – something that was not previously possible.

One line of our research concerns people who have lacked a sense of smell since birth. Amongst other things, we’ve seen that they compensate using other senses. We’ve also discovered that they don’t have less activity in the primary olfactory cortex, which suggests that it has broader functionality than previously assumed.

We’re also researching the loss of the sense of smell later in life – a much more common condition. Roughly half of those affected become depressed and we are trying to understand why this is. A lower quality of life probably plays a part, but it also seems to have something to do with imbalances in brain signalling.”

What do you eventually hope to achieve?

“We are aiming to develop olfactory implants similar to cochlea implants for the hearing impaired. One concrete goal is to take that research all the way to a finished product. More generally, I would like to help stimulate interest in the sense of smell and gain more space for it in the medical programme and in healthcare in line with our new understanding of its significance.”

Text: Anders Nilsson, in translation from Swedish
First published in the booklet ‘From Cell to Society 2023’

About Johan Lundström

Professor of Psychology specialising in Olfactory Perception at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience

Johan Lundström was born in Västerås in 1973. He studied psychology at Uppsala University, graduating in 2001. He took his PhD from the same university in 2005 and went on to spend his postdoc period at McGill University, Montreal, Canada from 2005 to 2007. From then until 2022, he was a principal investigator at Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia, USA. He has been a principal investigator at Karolinska Institutet and the University of Pennsylvania, USA, and founded and headed up Stockholm University’s Brain Imaging Centre.

Johan Lundström was appointed Professor of Psychology specialising in Olfactory Perception at Karolinska Institutet on 1 January 2023.

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