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VOLUME 27, ISSUE 03


Minimal Olfactory Perception During Sleep: Why Odor Alarms Will Not Work for Humans

Mary A. Carskadon, PhD1; Rachel S. Herz, PhD2

1Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, Sleep Research Laboratory, Brown Medical School/Bradley Hospital and 2Department of Psychology, Brown University, Providence, RI



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Study Objectives:

To examine olfactory arousal threshold during sleep in comparison to an auditory tone.

Design:

On night 1, participants rated odor intensity when awake and experienced olfactory stimuli during stage 1 sleep. Night 2 involved stage 2, stage 4, and rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep trials using the “staircase” threshold-detection method. Electroencephalogram, electrooculogram, electromyogram, electrocardiogram, and respiration were recorded along with behavioral response. An 800-Hz tone was given on trials when odors failed to arouse.

Setting:

Participants slept in individual rooms. Stimulus-delivery systems were operated from a separate room, where an experimenter observed physiologic recordings and behavioral responses.

Participants:

Three healthy men and 3 women aged 20 to 25 years (mean, 22 years).

Interventions:

Two odorants, peppermint and pyridine, at 4 concentrations were presented through nasal cannulas using an air-dilution olfactometer. Tones were played over a speaker.

Measurements:

Behavioral (button press and oral) responses, electroencephalographic activation, and changes in breathing and heart rate were assessed.

Results:

Participants responded to odors on 92% of stage 1 sleep trials. Peppermint was ineffective in stages 2, 4, and REM sleep. Pyridine produced behavioral threshold on 45% of stage 2 trials, none in stage 4, and one third of REM sleep trials. Tones were effective on at least 75% of trials. Heart rate increased significantly only following behavioral responses to odors or tones across sleep stages.

Conclusions:

The data indicate that human olfaction is not reliably capable of alerting a sleeper.

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