Recovering the sense of smell after COVID: researchers and clinicians join forces in the search for treatments

A group of researchers from the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivières (UQTR) and the Integrated University Health and Social Services Center of Mauricie-et-du-Centre-du-Québec (CIUSSS MCQ) have joined forces to find solutions to a very topical problem: the loss of smell linked to COVID-19.

A third study will soon emerge to better understand how olfactory training can play a crucial role in the treatment of olfactory dysfunction post COVID-19. This research project is supported by a $25,000 grant from the National Bank, from the dedicated research fund of the Trois-Rivières Regional Health Foundation (RSTR).

The treatment of several post-COVID-19 symptoms remains a colossal challenge for the health network in the years to come. Among these symptoms, olfactory dysfunction is a recurrent problem for which no treatment has been studied and proven effective.

“In the field, I meet a lot of people who have lost their sense of smell for several months already and who are making little progress in their rehabilitation. In terms of quality of life, this is a major impact. It was the perfect opportunity to work together on the clinical and research side to find a way to help them,” says Dr. Josiane Bégin-Bolduc, otolaryngologist at the CIUSSS MCQ.

Olfactory training: still unknown impacts on the brain

It was with Johannes Frasnelli, professor in the Department of Anatomy at UQTR and director of the Cognition, Neurosciences Affect and Behavior (COGNAC) research group, that a research project was set up to test a solution: olfactory training. This formula consists of subjecting the person to different smells to train their olfactory abilities.

At the end of the first two pilot studies, the results are promising: we see that the size of their olfactory bulb, a part of the brain that plays a role in olfaction, increases over training. “People who have olfactory dysfunction as a result of a viral infection show a reduction in the size of specific regions of the cerebral cortex, and olfactory training has been observed to restore normal size. It is not yet clear, however, if the same mechanisms apply to smell disorder in the context of COVID-19. Our preliminary results from our pilot studies reveal some very encouraging observations. This is an important advance not only in research, but also for its practical application,” says Professor Frasnelli.

A major study beyond the region

The different phases of this research project have already attracted attention not only in Mauricie, but also at the provincial and international levels. The preliminary results of the pilot project have just been presented at an international conference specializing in olfaction, held by the renowned Association for Chemoreception Sciences. The team traveled to Florida last April to share their innovative discoveries in the field. “In the scientific community, we feel a great interest in this branch of neuroscience. This demonstrates all the research potential present here, in Trois-Rivières,” adds Professor Frasnelli.

Looking for participants who have lost their sense of smell

Studies continue to better understand how to modulate olfactory entrainment in the context of olfactory dysfunction related to COVID-19. To do this, more than a hundred additional participants are sought. The criteria are as follows:

Be 18 years of age or older;

Have received a positive diagnosis for COVID-19 and have persistent olfactory dysfunction;

Willing and able to provide written informed consent;

Understand and read the French language;

Have an Internet connection and a working email address;

Be able to move around the UQTR laboratories.

The candidates will be subjected to olfactory training lasting 12 weeks. It is possible to submit an application by email to [email protected]

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