Experts estimate that about 2 percent of the U.S. population suffers from a lack of smell known as anosmia.
SAN FRANCISCO — For most of his adult life, Michael Berg has suffered from sinus problems that led to strange reactions to the way he smelled and tasted things. Drinking a glass of wine or smoking a cigar, for example, would drastically reduce his sense of smell.
He knew that alcohol and smoking could dull the senses, so he thought nothing of it. Then one day in 2005, his sense of smell completely vanished.
“Literally one day we were having dinner, and I remember I couldn’t smell or taste anything,” Berg, 55, said.
Experts estimate that about 2 percent of the U.S. population suffers from Berg’s condition, a lack of smell known as anosmia. And research by neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley provides hope of new therapies for those who suffer the affliction, whether due to aging, trauma or a viral infection.
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In the study published in the December issue of the journal Neuron, the researchers — led by campus neurobiology Professor John Ngai — found a genetic trigger responsible for renewing smell sensors in the nose.
That gene, known as p63, tells olfactory stem cells whether to replace themselves or to change into different types of cells. Under normal circumstances, Ngai said, there is a balance between the two outcomes.
But when p63 is absent, the cells only turn into other types of mature cells, which Ngai believes could eventually lead to the complete depletion of olfactory cells.
One reason for the onset of anosmia could be that the stem cells age and are less able to regenerate, or they are just depleted. Finding a way to promote stem cell renewal could help maintain sensory functions, such as the sense of smell, Ngai said.
“The loss of the ability to smell is actually a huge public health problem,” Ngai said. “It is underreported, not well understood and not aggressively pursued. … It is an underappreciated problem.”
That’s because people who lose their sense of smell also often lose their sense of taste. Together, the senses create the will to ingest nutritious foods and avoid toxic substances.
Berg, an Internet marketer who writes a blog (www.anosmia-blog.blogspot.com) about his condition, said his inability to smell can also lead to safety issues. About nine months ago he incorrectly hooked up a clothes dryer to a gas line while moving into his home in Carlsbad, Calif.
“A pretty good portion of the area was filling up with gas, and I couldn’t smell it,” he said. “There have been instances when things have been burning in the kitchen and if I’m not in the room, I don’t know.”
Though the study’s findings are only the beginning of what could become a new treatment, Ngai said, he hopes the work leads to treatments for neurodegenerative illnesses, such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
“By figuring out how to coax nerve cells to grow back, it can improve a person’s quality of life,” Ngai said.
(Contact reporter Allie Bidwell at firstname.lastname@example.org.)