Saturday, January 9, 2021

Goodbye to All That

Well . . . I’m back.

Yesterday I ended my eight-year dalliance with Twitter @scienceofscent. The precipitating reason was Twitter’s political censorship: it had reached such an intolerable level I could no longer associate myself with it.

I rarely posted about partisan politics. I figured my 1,440 followers wanted my take on sensory issues in science and culture, not my political views. The closest I came to expressing them was in posts about free speech and academic/scientific/commercial integrity. Spoiler alert: I believe in free speech and scientific integrity.

Few of the scientists I followed share my scruples. They salt their threads with political tweets and casually assume everyone agrees with their POV. (They are academics, so when on campus they assume correctly.) Especially grating are the Europeans who freely opine on American politics and society; personally, I wouldn’t presume to lecture Brits on Brexit, or Germans on the EU.

Another reason for leaving is that Twitter is now less engaging. There’s a big, interesting world out there and just not enough time to read the daily stream of humble brags (“so proud of my team’s newly published paper”) or flame wars on the biological basis of consciousness fought in 280-character salvos. The guarded, deliberately evasive language of some tweets isn’t worth the time it takes to puzzle them out. Finally, it’s my impression that comments in replies and retweets—the “social” part of social media—have become less frequent and less interesting.

To be fair, commenting on FirstNerve (and blogs in general) had declined as well, as people were drawn to the rapid fire adrenaline hits of likes and retweets. But I’m back here now hoping to rekindle the discussion by providing longer form coverage of all matters sensory.

I welcome your comments. You can sign up (on the right) to receive email notification of my new posts.

Friday, March 27, 2020

The SMELL CHANGE STATUS CHECK -- A Quick Way to Assess Recent Smell Loss in Suspected COVID-19

There have been numerous anecdotal reports of smell loss in people with COVID-19. It’s not surprising to find transient or even permanent smell loss associated with upper respiratory tract infections—in fact, it’s one of the leading causes of smell loss. However, in cases of flu, head cold, and sinus infection, the smell loss usually occurs at the same time, or following, the emergence of symptoms. What’s interesting here is the suggestion that the SARS-CoV-2 virus may trigger smell loss before full-blown COVID-19 disease is apparent. Thus, it might be evident in otherwise symptom-free people. If so, smell loss could be a useful marker in deciding whether to test someone for the virus, allow them back to work, etc.

Most people in the medical and chemosensory communities are aware of these possibilities. What has been unaddressed, thus far, is how exactly front-line medical personnel should probe for recent smell changes in potential patients.

Commercially available smell tests, such as the UPSIT and Sniffin’ Stick kits, are designed for full evaluation of smell function (although there are brief versions of each). However, they are relatively time-consuming to administer, at least in the context of evaluating people in the middle of a viral pandemic. They also require close patient contact with the test materials, which raises concerns about virus transfer and hazardous waste disposal.

My old friend and colleague Mark Greenberg, a neuropsychologist with a clinical practice in Boston, were talking about this earlier in the week and decided what was needed was a brief, verbal assessment using standardized questions, to determine if a person has experienced a recent change in smell function. We came up with three questions modified from the NHANES health survey, and added another of our own.

We call the resulting 4-item screener the SMELL CHANGE STATUS CHECK, or SCSC. We’ve made it available via a Creative Commons license. You can download it at this link. We hope healthcare professionals will find it useful. It may help in compiling data regarding how often smell loss is associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection, and when it emerges during the typical clinical course.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Annals of Hype: Yet Another Health Claim for CBD

The alarm on the FirstNerve Bogosity Meter™ has been blaring nonstop since New Year’s Day. It hasn’t recorded base levels this high since the Dot Com bubble at the turn of the century. Most of the triggering events are coming from the cannabis sector, and have to do with health claims for cannabis and its constituent cannabinoids and terpenes.

This morning’s alarm was set off by a tweet from a weed website called The Fresh Toast:

“Research suggests CBD could help manage varicose veins via influence on the cardiovascular system.”

Well, that sounds interesting. I wonder who did the research? After all, it’s notoriously difficult to use federal grant money to research weed or any of its components, especially using human subjects. (For the uninitiated, CBD is cannabidiol, a cannabinoid that occurs in marijuana and hemp. It has little or none of the psychoactive kick of its chemical relative THC, although it may interact with the human body’s endogenous cannabinoid receptors.)

The tweet links this article posted on The Fresh Toast, a website that bills itself as “the most trusted name in cannabis.” It was written by one Kate-Madonna Hindes. Her post is slugged “Here’s what we know about CBD’s effects on varicose veins.” Hindes sets things up with some general info about varicose veins before revealing her big piece of evidence:
A study published by the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology in 2013 showed promise for cannabidiol as therapy for the cardiovascular system. The study gave insight into CBD’s benefits and offered that in some cases, cannabidiol could cause a reduction in vascular tension or, “vasorelaxation.”
So the hook behind the tweet and post was not a new finding but a seven-year-old paper. Further, it was not a clinical study or even an experimental report; in fact, it contained no new data at all. It was a review paper that examined previously published work relevant to the question “Is the cardiovascular system a therapeutic target for cannabidiol?

Well, nuts. But the review might still discuss research on CBD and varicose veins, right? Wrong. Varicose veins are not mentioned in the review. The cardiovascular disorders is does consider are diabetes, myocardial infarction, stress, stroke, and encephalitis. And the CBD-relevant evidence on these conditions is drawn from studies on dissociated human cells, rats, mice, and Mongolian gerbils.

In summarizing these studies, the authors of the review paper conclude:
Together, these data suggest that the cardiovascular system is indeed a valid therapeutic target for CBD. However, the target sites of action for CBD remain to be established for most of these responses. Whether these responses to CBD will translate into the human cardiovascular system also remains to be established.
In other words, they are very cautious and make no claim for CBD as a potential treatment for any human vascular disorder whatsoever.

But what does Kate-Madonna Hindes conclude?
With the introduction of CBD into the market, professionals and patients are taking notice of CBD’s benefits for varicose veins, but does research support its use?

The short answer is: Maybe.
I’d say the short answer is: No.

Hindes does her readers no favor by giving them the impression that there is any evidence at all for CBD as a treatment for varicose veins. She merely adds to the tsunami of online stories that tout CBD’s potential as a treatment for everything that ails you.

No wonder the Bogosity Meter is working overtime.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Turgenev: The Scent Trails in “Smoke”

Turgenev, by Ilya Repin (1874)

Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev did not make much use of olfactory imagery in his novels, at least judging by Fathers and Sons (1862) and Smoke (1867). For the most part, he set his scenes with spare yet effective visual references.

Yet there are a couple of notable exceptions in Smoke, which is the story of a man torn between his feelings for two very different women. One of them occurs when the protagonist Litvinov comes across a picnic party of young Russian officers and their ladies.
All these warriors were immaculately groomed, shaved and perfumed all over with a scent redolent of the nobility and the Guards, a mixture of the finest tobacco smoke and the most amazing patchouli.
There’s a rather hyper-particular smellscape from mid-nineteenth century Russia! And this one is even more so:
Irina [a femme fatale] was sitting on the sofa between Prince Koko and Madame Kh., once a famed beauty and pan-Russian bluestocking, who had long since mutated into a rotting toadstool, smelling of Lenten oil and stale poison.
In those days, the Eastern Orthodox Church proscribed olive oil during Lenten fasts; oil from other sources was allowed. The image of “stale poison”, on the other hand, is a product of Turgenev’s inventive genius.

There are a couple of other olfactory vignettes involving the intoxicating scent of a woman’s hair and neck. They serve their purpose well, but are less unique. A final instance involves an anonymously delivered bouquet of flowers, which figures later in the story.
A strong scent, very pleasant and familiar, caught his attention. He looked round and saw a large bouquet of fresh heliotropes in a glass of water on the window sill. In some surprise he bent down to the flowers, touched, them, sniffed them . . . It seems that something came back to him, something very distant, but what it was exactly he could not think.
Sacrebleu! Yet another example of “Proustian smell memory” that predates Proust by more than half a century. (In this case, it is Proustian in the actual sense of Marcel, namely an odor summoning up a vague, ungraspable feeling where an actual memory ought to be).

Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev
Smoke (1867)

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

If Ever a Whizz of a Wiz There Was

Urinals banned from newly remodeled Portland Building,” reports KGW8-TV in Portland, Oregon. While graciously allowing “gender-specific (male and female) multi-stall restrooms” to remain, the City of Portland has decreed that the men’s rooms will no longer have urinals. Because shutup.

First, the eco-zealots pushed for waterless urinals, but the units were so badly designed (and smelly) that many of them were removed. Now the gender warriors are taking aim (so to speak) at urinals qua urinals.

Amid the madness, I offer this mini photo-essay on my favorite examples of the art form.

First, from the Shin-Marunouchi Building in Tokyo, a pair of tall urinals positioned in front of fifth-floor windows. At night, they provide a magnificent view of Tokyo Station as one recycles a couple of oversize bottles worth of Kirin Ichiban.

Next, from a recent visit to Manhattan, magnificent porcelain urinals with the craquelure of antiquity, found in McSorley’s Old Ale House just a couple of blocks from Cooper Union. Their massive, full-body design allows one, no matter how drunk or clumsy, to deliver the goods well inside the designated drainage area, and not on the shoes of adjacent guests. A design for the ages; sadly, we shall never see the likes of it again.