MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Dr Lorenzo Stafford, PhD, CPsychol
Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychology
University of Portsmouth
MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study?
Response: The background to this work was that I had been thinking for sometime on the role of our sense of smell in drug consumption and addiction. Most of the research in this area is dominated by visual processes, in particular showing how cues associated to drugs (e.g. packet of cigarettes, bottle of beer) become conditioned in such drug users. That work has been useful in explaining how in recovering addicts, long after the withdrawal symptoms have subsided, when exposed to such cues, they can nevertheless relapse to craving and consuming the drug; hence though a powerful driver, addiction is not just about reversing withdrawal symptoms.
However, most of our richer experiences are multisensory, so it seems likely that other senses must also play a role in the addictive process. Years ago, I completed a PhD on the topic of caffeine and with the general importance placed on the sensory (especially smell) aspects of coffee, all planted the seed for a possible study. We completed two experiments that examined the lowest concentration at which participants (high, moderate and non-coffee consumers) could detect (Threshold test) a coffee associated chemical (exp 1) and in a separate task, how fast they were at identifying (Recognition test) the odour of real coffee. In experiment 2, participants (coffee consumers and non-consumers) completed the same Threshold test for the coffee odour but also completed a Threshold test for a control odour.
MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings?
Response: The main findings in experiment 1 were that in the Threshold test, high coffee consumers were better at detecting the odour of coffee compared to moderate or non-consumers and that ability was related to their degree of caffeine craving; specifically, the more they craved caffeine to reverse symptoms such as fatigue, the better they were at detecting the odour.
In the Recognition test, we found that collectively, coffee consumers were faster at identifying the odour of real coffee compared to non-consumers. In experiment two, we replicated the finding for the Threshold test but importantly showed there were no differences for the control odour.
MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?
Response: I guess what I think is most interesting is that fairly basic processes in olfactory detection are linked to complex behaviour such as drug consumption and addiction. So, it was not just a case of more exposure to a smell (coffee) made people better at detecting that odour, but that their ability to detect the odour was related to their habitual consumption and craving.
MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?
Response: In addition to further work needed in replicating these findings, particularly the craving aspect, I think it would be interesting to explore whether therapy could be developed to help people kick unwanted drug habits. Research from another laboratory has suggested that creating an aversive response to a specific odour is relatively quick and easy in humans, which offers a possible protocol of how a therapy could be developed.
The research was funded by the University of Portsmouth and the British Psychological Society. The reference for the full article is:
Stafford, L.D., Damant, K., Ashurst, S., Parker, M. (2019). Higher olfactory sensitivity to coffee odour in habitual caffeine users, Experimental and clinical psychopharmacology, http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pha0000293
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