The POTION project
The overall objective of POTION is to delve deeper into the understanding of how the sense of smell influences human social interaction.
The project will investigate social interaction, combining new knowledge about the chemical composition of human social chemosignals with a new smell-based technology designed to drive social behavior. In order to do so, the researchers of the POTION project will aim to solve three important challenges.
The first challenge is analyzing human chemosignals to identify the chemicals carrying the information on the emotional state of the sender. To this end, the project is focusing on the emotions of happiness and fear. This is because these emotions drive approach and avoidance behavior, which are the fundamental building blocks of social interaction between individuals of the same species.
The results will be used to tackle the second challenge: to artificially synthesize the chemosignals of these emotions. These synthesized compounds will then be used in an innovative computer-controlled odor delivery system able to drive social response strategies.
This brings us to the third challenge: the development of this breakthrough device. How will this work? The device will be controlled in a closed loop where the social-emotional state of the participants will be evaluated through a new computational neural model, and according to this evaluation, the delivery system will release synthetic chemosignals able to improve the participants’ wellbeing and feelings of trust.
The POTION system will be applied and tested in both social and clinical scenarios. The final outcome of the project is to propose a new human chemosignal-based treatment for social anxiety.
Why body odors?
A large body of literature exists on the role of the olfactory system in emotion processing as well as emotion regulation.
Previous studies have shown that can humans not only ‘smell’ emotions in other humans through the perception of other people’s body odors, they also respond to emotional body odors accordingly. For example, exposure to armpit odor from people experiencing fear has been shown to cause movements in the facial muscles used in expressions of fear, whereas those exposed to the armpit odor of people experiencing happiness respond with movements in the facial muscles used when expressing genuine happiness.
If emotional body odor can impact the emotional state of the receiver, one might wonder whether this could be used to improve individuals’ mental health.
Chemosignals as therapy enhancers for social anxiety: a pilot study
In this pilot study, we aim to investigate whether interventions used to treat mental health conditions, such as social anxiety, can be enhanced through the use of human chemosignals.
To this aim, we have designed a pilot randomized control trial. In this study, 96 women aged 18-36 years with social anxiety symptoms completed a mindfulness intervention whilst being randomly exposed to one of four conditions: happiness, fear or neutral human body odor or clean air (control condition). Psychological outcomes are measured before and after the intervention through questionnaires (e.g. the short version of the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory). During the intervention, physiological outcomes are also measured, including skin conductance and heart rate variability.
We hope that the POTION project will be able to bring new knowledge on the mechanism of how human chemosignals influence behavior and emotions. This will open new avenues for using chemosignals to enhance existing treatments and promote social interaction by increasing feelings of social connectedness.
In addition, mental health disorders affect social and emotional well-being and can lead to stigma, loss of productivity and costly resources needed for treatment and management. With our study, we aim to improve access to different forms of treatments that can be done independently. This has multiple benefits as pressure on the health care system is reduced, whilst also improving patient choice regarding available treatment options.
The POTION project and the study are funded by the European Commission H2020 Framework Program, Grant No. 824153.