STEM-Talk: Dr. Michael Leon on the power of olfaction enrichment to ameliorate dementia symptoms

What if the path to delaying the onset of dementia symptoms begins at the nose?

It is a doorway that the research of Dr. Michael Leon opened with a 2023 study on the power of olfaction enrichment to influence memory function and brain health. The findings attracted wide interest by finding that stimulation of our sense of smell with essential oils had a profound impact on memory, cognition, and language recall.

Our conversation with Leon on STEM-Talk Episode 164 is available now on the STEM-Talk webpage as well as popular podcast platforms.

Olfaction can be considered a kind of “canary in the coal mine” for serious consequences.

“Olfactory loss accompanies virtually all neurological and psychiatric disorders,” Leon says. “I’ve counted about 70 of them. It also is associated with all of the things that will eventually kill you. Heart disease, kidney disease, cancer, lung disease, liver disease – all the things that will eventually kill you — all are associated with olfactory loss. It may be that loss of olfaction puts your brain and body at elevated risk for expressing these.”

Leon’s long research career has focused on the influence of environmental enrichment on neurological function, disease, and disorders. He has studied the benefits of sensory-motor stimulation for children with autism spectrum disorder, for the treatment of anorexia and for those with dementia and neurological conditions.

He is a professor emeritus in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of California Irvine, where his Leon Lab has focused on studying the benefits of increased sensory-motor activity in children with autism spectrum disorder.

Our conversation includes:

  • The beginnings of Leon’s interest in science, when he traded in his summer job as a lifeguard at Rockaway Beach for a summer job indoors at Brooklyn College cleaning out rat cages.
  • His early work in endocrinology, and his path into studying the way environmental stimulation influenced outcomes for children with autism spectrum disorder.
  • The 2023 paper showing a powerful link between the olfactory stimulation older people received from essential oils overnight and their brain function.
  • The applications this olfaction stimulation study could have across other disciplines.
  • The influence these findings could have on a larger study population, mild traumatic brain injury patients, as well as children with a high level of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), and other groups.

IHMC is a not-for-profit research institute of the Florida University System where researchers pioneer science and technology aimed at leveraging and extending human capabilities. IHMC researchers and staff collaborate extensively with the government, industry and academia to help develop breakthrough technologies. IHMC research partners have included: DARPA, the National Science Foundation, NASA, Army, Navy, Air Force, National Institutes of Health, IBM, Microsoft, Honda, Boeing, Lockheed, and many others.