Olfaction Modulates Inter-Subject Correlation of Neural Responses

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Odors can be powerful stimulants. It is well-established that odors provide strong cues for recall of locations, people and events. The effects of specific scents on other cognitive functions are less well-established. We hypothesized that scents with different odor qualities will have a different effect on attention. To assess attention, we used Inter-Subject Correlation of the EEG because this metric is strongly modulated by attentional engagement with natural audiovisual stimuli. We predicted that scents known to be “energizing” would increase Inter-Subject Correlation during watching of videos as compared to “calming” scents. In a first experiment, we confirmed this for eucalyptol and linalool while participants watched animated autobiographical narratives. The result was replicated in a second experiment, but did not generalize to limonene, also considered an “energizing” odorant. In a third, double-blind experiment, we tested a battery of scents including single molecules, as well as mixtures, as participants watched various short video clips. We found a varying effect of odor on Inter-Subject Correlation across the various scents. This study provides a basis for reliably and reproducibly assessing effects of odors on brain activity. Future research is needed to further explore the effect of scent-based up-modulation in engagement on learning and memory performance. Educators, product developers and fragrance brands might also benefit from such objective neurophysiological measures.

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