Odors that carry social cues seem to affect people on the autism spectrum differently, according to a new study by researchers at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, published last week in the Nature science journal.
According to the study, ‘social’ odors – ones that our bodies give off while feeling different emotions, such as fear or happiness – are interpreted differently by people not on the spectrum and those on the autistic spectrum, often having them represent emotions different from those they are supposed to.
The Weizmann Institute researchers said the study may have a substantial impact on how we understand autism, as it proves that autism does not lead to an inability to read other people’s emotions, but rather affects the way people on the spectrum interpret different emotions, often misconstruing them for other emotions, as opposed to being oblivious to them.
Led by Prof. Noam Sobel, researchers at the Institute’s neurobiology department investigated, among other things, the smells that announce such emotions as happiness, fear or aggression to others. They explain that although this sense is not our primary sense, as it is in many other mammals, humans still subliminally read and react to certain odors. For example, smelling fear; even if humans cannot consciously detect its odor, it is something we may do without thinking.
Sobel and his team wondered whether this sense might be disrupted in a social disorder like autism.
To test this theory, two groups, one consisting of people on the spectrum and one of people who are not, were exposed to either to the “smell of fear” or to a standard human odor. The smell of fear was sweat collected from people taking skydiving classes, and the standard odor was sweat from the same people, only this time it had been collected when they were just exercising.
Although neither group reported detecting dissimilarities between the two smells, their bodies reacted to each in a different way. In the group of people not on the spectrum, smelling the fear-induced sweat produced measurable increases in the fear response, for example in skin conductivity, while the everyday sweat did not. In the autistic men, fear-induced sweat lowered their fear responses, while the odor of “calm sweat” did the opposite: It raised their measurable anxiety levels.
In other words, the autistic volunteers in the experiment did not display an inability to read the olfactory social cues in smell, but rather they misread them. Sobel and his group think that this unconscious difference may point to a deeper connection between our sense of smell and early development.
Sobel explains that research in recent years has turned up smell receptors like those in our nasal passages in all sorts of other places in our bodies – from our brains to our uteri – and that these receptors may play a role in development, among other things.
In other words, it is possible that the sensing of subtle chemical signals may go awry at crucial stages in the brain’s development in autism.
“We are still speculating, at this point,” says Sobel, “but we are hoping that further research in our lab and others will clarify both the function of these unconscious olfactory social cues and their roots in such social disorders as autism.”
By: Yona Schnitzer
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