Yukei Hirasawa, Mika Shirasu, Masako Okamoto¶ and Kazushige Touhara¶(¶ corresponding authors)


Unpleasant odors impair our mood and may affect physical health, even when the odorants are not toxic. A possible cause for such negative effects is stress induced by odors; however, whether the unpleasantness itself elicited stress or not has not been clear. Thus, we examined whether unpleasantness of odors induced the stress responses of emotion, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Six experiments were conducted, where salivary cortisol or salivary alpha amylase (sAA), markers for activities of the HPA and the SNS, respectively, were measured, along with subjective ratings of odors and emotion. First, the responses to three malodors listed in the Offensive Odor Control Law in Japan were examined. While these odors were rated as unpleasant, and exposure to them increased anxiety, no response of the HPA was observed (experiment 1, n = 69). In contrast, an increase of the SNS activity was observed after exposure to two of the three malodors, while the SNS did not respond to pleasant odors (experiments 2–4, n = 35, 34 and 30). To examine the effect of unpleasantness further, the SNS response was examined while subjective unpleasantness of odors was manipulated by adding negative verbal information (experiment 5, n = 92), or by mixing in a pleasant odor (experiment 6, n = 35). The SNS responses upon inhalation of the same odorous substances were found to be dependent on whether they were perceived as unpleasant. Finally, a correlation analysis on the pooled data from experiments 2–6 showed that the odor-elicited SNS activity and anxiety were strongly correlated with perceived unpleasantness of odors. These results suggest that subjective unpleasantness of odors per se can induce the stress response of emotion and the SNS.

Paper Information

: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2019.03.018