Odor-induced recall of emotional memories in PTSD–Review and new paradigm for research

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Abstract

It is clinically well known that olfactory intrusions in PTSD can be a disabling phenomena due to the involuntary recall of odor memories. Odorants can trigger involuntary recall of emotional memories as well have the potential to help diminishing emotional arousal as grounding stimuli. Despite major advances in our understanding of the function of olfactory system, the study of the relation of olfaction and emotional memory is still relatively scarce. Odor memory is long thought to be different than other types of memories such as verbal or visual memories, being more strongly engraved and more closely related to strong emotions. Brain areas mediating smell memory including orbitofrontal cortex and other parts of medial prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and amygdala, have been implicated in learning and memory and are part of a neural circuitry that is involved in PTSD. The olfactory cortex itself also plays an important role in emotional processing. Clinical observations support the notion that odor-evoked memories can play a role in the symptomatology of PTSD. This paper reviews a re-emerging body of science linking odor processing to emotional processing in PTSD using the calming and grounding effect of odors as well as the use of odors in augmented exposure therapy. This results in converging evidence that olfaction is an excellent model for studying many questions germane to the field of human emotional memory processing.

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