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‘Sniff test’ links smell to consciousness and coma recovery

On Behalf of | Dec 14, 2021 | Motor Vehicle Accidents |

When someone has suffered a head injury and is in a coma, the first thing their loved ones want to know is, “When will they wake up? Will they wake up at all?”

Doctors have never really been able to offer much of an answer. Even the most sophisticated imaging technology available has an error rate of 40% when it comes to detecting disorders of consciousness. There’s been no reliable way to determine who will and who won’t wake up after slipping into a coma – until now.

A simple test can now guide diagnostics and therapeutic responses

The border between a patient in a minimally conscious state and a patient in a vegetative state is pretty thin – but an accurate diagnosis is important when it comes to guiding treatments.

Just recently, a team of neuroscientists discovered that a simple “sniff test” can provide results that are more accurate than any brain scan. The doctors exposed each patient in their study to two different smells – one pleasant and one noxious – and measured their breathing rates.

All of the coma patients who reacted negatively to the bad smell (by instinctively lowering their breathing) eventually progressed to at least a minimally conscious state. Those who didn’t continued to remain in apparent comas.

The test does produce some false negatives, and experts suggest that may be related to certain brain injuries that actually damage the olfactory system itself, which eliminates the autonomic response to bad smells. Just the same, this simple test now offers new hope – and new directions for treatment – for patients, their doctors and their loved ones.

If your loved one was involved in a car wreck or another accident that left them with catastrophic head injuries, you know that there’s a long road ahead before you will see any kind of recovery. The future is very uncertain. Compensation from the at-fault party may be able to help obtain the necessary care your loved one needs.