No One's Sniffing At Aroma Research Now

Seattle's Spot Bagel Bakery Inc. stores its rolls in Plexiglas bins to keep them fresh. But that also bottles up their distinctive aroma. So to entice customers, store designer J'Amy Owens plans to use a pellet, made by International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. (IFF), that emits the smell of fresh bagels when heated by Spot's neon sign at supermarket displays. "For years, I've been specifying the lighting, music, and ambiance in stores," says Owens. "Why not add the dimension of aroma?"

Retailers and other companies are starting to ask the same question as science learns more about how smell works. Top fragrance makers are pouring millions into research aimed at grabbing a bigger share of both the $4 billion perfume business and the huge market for scents that go into household products such as soaps and polishes. One area of research, especially popular in Japan, focuses on the behavioral effects of aromas: some help people relax, others help keep workers alert. And scientists are finding possible links between smell and disease that may aid in diagnosing illnesses such as Alzheimer's.

STRONG FEELINGS. Until recently, sight and sound got most of the lab limelight. There wasn't even a standardized test of ability to smell until 1983, and the National Institutes of Health, which often sets the science agenda, didn't provide much funding for olfaction. "NIH didn't care because no one died of lack of smell," says Solomon H. Snyder, a neurobiologist at Johns Hopkins University school of medicine. But in the 1980s, NIH boosted its funding for many types of research, smell included. That, adds Snyder, led to "breakthroughs that are attracting a lot of attention."

The most dramatic of these came last April with a discovery by scientists Linda Buck and Richard Axel at Columbia University's Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Odors reach the brain through two mucus-laden spots the size of collar buttons located high in the nose. There, odor molecules, swept in on the breath, bind to microscopic receptors attached to nasal nerve cells. These cells reach into a part of the brain associated with emotion and memory, which is why some experts think smells can elicit vivid memories and strong feelings.

For years, no one knew how the receptors worked. But Buck and Axel discovered a family of genes that hold the blueprint for hundreds of receptors -- perhaps even one for each of the 10,000-odd odors humans can smell. This discovery means "the art of perfumery will never be the same," says Avery N. Gilbert, head of olfactory science at Givaudan-Roure, the world's No. 2 fragrance maker, based near Geneva. He jokes that in place of current jargon that describes smells in terms of "notes" and "accords," perfumers will "speak of musk-receptor agonists and molecular binding affinities of floral-receptor proteins." He says it will one day be possible to draw an olfactory profile of customers and design scents just for them.

Or block odors they find disgusting. By measuring the response of olfactory nerves to various compounds, scientists at Snyder's lab are searching for "antagonists." These are odorless molecules that would block the receptors for foul smells. "More important than new perfumes," says Johns Hopkins' Snyder, "is to develop antagonists which you could spray all over the men's room in Penn Station -- and do a great service to humanity."

EARLY WARNING. More intriguing may be links between smell and illness. Richard L. Doty, director of the University of Pennsylvania Smell & Taste Center, has found that patients with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease suffer identical smell loss. Because this often precedes other symptoms, it could be an early test for these ailments. And because the effects of Alzheimer's are more pronounced in the higher regions of the brain associated with smell, some scientists think the disease could even be caused by foreign entities attacking the brain through the nose. Michael Leon, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Irvine, is studying detoxifying agents in nasal receptors that disarm airborne intruders. He says Alzheimer's victims may have fewer of these agents.

The science of smell could yield other insights into the brain. "The olfactory system embodies all the major processes, such as the birth and differentiation of neurons, that occur when the brain first develops," says James E. Schwob, a neurobiologist at the State University of New York Health Science Center at Syracuse. Olfactory nerves die, and new ones grow every 30 to 90 days, without affecting the sense of smell. Nature may have arranged this, says Schwob, because olfactory nerve cells, which stretch from the nose directly to the brain, are relatively exposed and thus vulnerable to damage. Understanding this nerve regeneration holds great promise, says Schwob: "We hope that it will tell us about brain development -- and where it can go wrong."

While such research continues, the most exciting news for fragrance makers may involve pheromones, odors that trigger sexual behavior in insects and animals. Finding those in humans "is our holy grail," says Eugene P. Grisanti, chairman of New York-based IFF, the world's No. 1 fragrance maker. The pheromone-detecting organ in animals, a sac behind the nose called the vomeronasal organ (VNO), was thought to be absent or vestigial in humans. But in October, scientists at a pheromone conference in Paris presented what experts say is persuasive evidence that VNOs exist and function in humans. Researchers from the University of Mexico's medical school found VNOs in more than 900 of 1,000 subjects studied.

More important, scientists at the University of Utah have found that cells in VNOs of subjects reacted to "pheromones" cooked up by a Menlo Park (Calif.) company named Erox Corp. "There are some substances that elicit electrical activity from the VNO," says Charles J. Wysocki, a scientist at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, "but we don't know what it means yet."

Of more immediate value to fragrance makers are discoveries linking scents with behavior. "Down the line, people will buy fragrances not for smell but for effect," says Annette Green, who heads the Fragrance Research Fund, an industry group. Psychologists have found that college students perform better on a "sustained attention" task when peppermint or lily of the valley is intermittently pumped into the room. Other experiments have shown that the smell of vanilla helps relax patients undergoing magnetic resonance imaging.

Other studies show that pleasant odors can enhance self-esteem and promote workplace harmony. Based on similar earlier studies by Japan's top cosmetics company, Shiseido Co., construction giant Kajima Corp. has sold 33 systems at $ 8,000 each that spritz scents throughout office buildings to calm or rev up workers. Some 250 smaller, competing versions of that system have been installed at $1,400 apiece.

LIPSTICK THERAPY. In the U. S., most experiments haven't gone this far. But insiders say General Motors Corp. may look into the use of aromas to keep drivers attentive. And U. S. beauty and cosmetics giants are launching products that claim to relax and revive. Aveda Corp.'s new Esthetique aroma-therapy line includes lipstick that freshens the breath. Avon Products Inc. and Estee Lauder Inc. are experimenting with similar approaches.

Some boutiques, such as Victoria's Secret, have started scenting their stores with distinctive aromas. And J'Amy Owens, whose Seattle-based firm is called Retail Planning Associates, has started using fragrances for clients such as Kroger Co. and Bigsby & Kruthers. For three B&K Knot Shop tie stores, she chose a leathery, oaky aroma designed by IFF to go with a tree that's part of the store decor. B&K President H. Gene Silverberg is so pleased with the effect that he is trying it out in his 19 other stores. "The employees find it very pleasant," he says. "A happier staff means a happier customer, and that means more sales." And more incentive for fragrance makers to stay hot on the scent of research into smell.

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