A group of European researchers showed that exposure to human odors, extracted from other people’s sweat, could be used to enhance the treatment of some mental health problems.
In this preliminary study, researchers were able to show that social anxiety was reduced when patients underwent mindfulness therapy while being exposed to human “chemo-signals”, or what we commonly call body odor, obtained from the sweat of the volunteers’ armpits.
Elisa Vigna, principal investigator at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm (Sweden), who presented the results of the study at the European Congress of Psychiatry held in Paris (France)explains that “our state of mind leads us to produce molecules (or chemo-signals) in sweat that communicate our emotional state and produce the corresponding responses in the receptors”.
“The results of our preliminary study show that combining these chemotherapy signals with mindfulness therapy appears to produce better results in the treatment of social anxiety than mindfulness therapy alone can achieve,” he notes.
Social anxiety is a common mental health disorder in which people worry excessively about participating in social situations. This can affect interactions, for example in the workplace or relationships, but also in everyday situations such as shopping or on vacation, which can make it difficult to live a normal life without excessive concern about contact with other people.
In the study sweat was collected from volunteers and patients were exposed to chemotherapy signals extracted from these sweat sampleswhile receiving treatment for social anxiety.
Sweat samples were collected from volunteers who watched short film clips: these films were chosen to elicit specific emotional states such as fear or happiness; it was to see if the specific emotions experienced during sweating had different effects on the treatment.
Scary movie clips included content from horror movies like ‘The Curse’, while ‘cheerful’ clips included footage from ‘Mr. Bean’s Holiday’, ‘Sister Act’ and others.
Once the sweat was collected, the researchers recruited 48 women (between 15 and 35 years old), all with social anxiety, and divided them into 3 groups of 16 people each. For 2 days, they all underwent mindfulness therapy for social anxiety. At the same time, Each group was exposed to a different odor. obtained from sweat samples from people who watched different types of video clips, as well as from a control group, which was exposed to fresh air.
According to Elisa Vigna, they found that “women in the group exposed to sweat from people who had seen funny or scary movies responded better to mindfulness therapy than those who were not exposed.”
“We were a little surprised to discover that the emotional state of the person producing the sweat did not influence the results of the treatment”, he admits: the sweat produced while someone was happy had the same effect as someone who was scared while watching a movie.for. So there may be something about human chemotherapy signals in sweat in general that affects response to treatment.”
Simply being in the presence of another person can have this effect, but it needs to be confirmed, says Vigna. “In fact, that’s what we’re now testing in a follow-up study with a similar design but also including the sweat of people who watch emotionally neutral documentaries,” he continues. “This will allow us to discover whether the potential benefits of therapeutic techniques derive from the unconscious perception of specific emotional signals or if they simply have to do with the human presence, regardless of the emotion.”
The researcher points out that they found that people who underwent a mindfulness therapy treatment session along with exposure to human body odors experienced a reduction of about 39%. In comparison, in the mindfulness group (i.e., the control group), there was a 17% reduction in anxiety scores after one treatment session.
“We are hopeful that this could lead to a new way of helping people with social anxiety disorder. –he says–, for example, increasing the effectiveness of standalone eHealth interventions (like meditation apps) or providing an additional opportunity for those who don’t respond to current treatment. However, we caution that this is a proof-of-concept study, so we are now embarking on a larger study to confirm the results.”
Human sweat is complex and variable in the way it carries information. The researchers work with analysts from the University of Pisa (Italy) who managed to identify more than 300 different compounds in human sweat. Now they hope that if they manage to identify and isolate the molecules that cause the effects observed in the study, their therapeutic use will be easier. This work is part of the POTION (“Promoting Social Interaction through Emotional Body Odours”) project 4, funded by the EU under Horizon 2020.