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Die Rolle von Gerüchen und verbalen Hinweisen beim Abrufen von Erinnerungen

von NFI Redaktion

Problems with remembering can lead to difficulties in autobiographical memory (AM), a condition associated with major depressive disorder (MDD).

A recent study published in JAMA Network Open investigated whether odors compared to word cues can stimulate memory in MDD patients with deficits in specific AM recall.

Studie: Erinnerung an autobiografische Erinnerungen nach Geruch oder verbalen Hinweisen bei Erwachsenen mit schwerer depressiver Störung
The role of odor and verbal cues in recalling memories


MDD significantly reduces and impairs a person’s quality of life. A cognitive feature of MDD is the difficulty in recalling specific AMs, where episodic memories are retrieved based on general abstract self-knowledge.

Most studies on AM in MDD have used images or words to trigger memory recall. Research has also shown that odor cues can evoke less verbally mediated and more direct responses.

No study has examined the presence of excessive AM in MDD when smell cues trigger a specific episodic memory.

Compared to memories triggered by words, those triggered by smells evoke more emotional memories associated with stronger feelings of reliving.

The phenomenon of smells triggering vivid AMs is known as the Proust phenomenon, but the properties of smell-based AMs in the MDD population have not been studied.

Über die Studie

This study was conducted at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine using data collected between September 2021 and November 2022.

Both smell and word cues were used in a balanced and random order to assess the recall of specific AMs. Adult participants diagnosed with primary MDD were recruited.

The main outcome variable was the proportion of smell-based memory recall of specific AMs compared to word-based recall. Secondary outcomes included vividness, arousal, and memory response time for smell-triggered memories.


It was found that MDD participants recalled more specific AMs with smell cues compared to word cues. This specificity persisted even though participants had difficulty identifying the presented smells.

In line with previous research on MDD patients, the participants in this study were able to recognize smells in 29% of cases, suggesting no link between AM recall and smell identification.

The fact that smell cues elicited high AM recall rates lends credibility to the view that smell cues activate a more direct memory pathway than verbally mediated cues.

Smell cues may also be more effective in improving memory in depression, as word cues are subject to limitations due to prefrontal and verbally mediated processing deficits.

Memories triggered by smells were found to be livelier and more arousing than those triggered by words.

In this study setting, no sequencing effect was found in the participants, meaning the order of presentation of word and smell cues was irrelevant. Furthermore, no correlation was documented between the severity of depression and memory performance.

These preliminary findings suggest that improving autobiographical specificity could lead to a reduction in depressive symptoms.

Future research should seek to uncover the underlying mechanisms of smell-triggered AMs to test the hypothesis that odor cues enhance the activity of the hippocampus and amygdala.

Smell-based memory specificity training could provide a cost-effective way to ensure amygdala activation during positive memory recall.

Future research should also focus on taste cues, as the amygdala directly maps to the taste cortex, potentially leading to an increase in AM specificity. However, participants may be less willing to engage in such a protocol, and there may be more allergy-related issues associated with smell cues.


In conclusion, smell cues elicited more specific AM recall compared to word cues in MDD participants. Smell-triggered AMs were also livelier and more arousing, lending credence to the Proust phenomenon. It is expected that this study will stimulate further research with larger samples in diverse settings to further explain these relationships.

The main limitation of this study was the lack of a healthy control group, making it difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the occurrence of excessive memory recall in the sample. However, researchers pointed to the possibility of overgeneralization compared to the average for the healthy population when recalling specific memories.

A second limitation was the relatively small sample size. While the primary outcome was captured with sufficient power, larger samples are required to further investigate the properties of other recalled memories, such as valence.

Finally, the study participants were mainly white women. While future research should use diverse samples, it should be noted that the sample used here consisted of patients diagnosed with primary MDD.

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