UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering


New grant tackles the loss of smell and its impact on our wellbeing

7 January 2021

A “SmellHealth” initative, led by OWidgets Ltd with UCL support, has been awarded €150k from the European Research Council

Smell - image of nose

The SmellHealth project will develop efficient and affordable smell-delivery technologies, that will enable digital healthcare applications such as smell training to help those with loss of smell. The contribution that the human sense of smell makes to quality of life and wellbeing is immense, with a unique link to emotions and memories.

Loss of smell, known as smell dysfunctions, can affect personal safety, enjoyment of food, personal hygiene, and can cause serious mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety and social isolation – even when the loss is temporary. The negative effects around this have been highlights on an even wider scale recently by the impact the COVID19 pandemic has had globally on many sufferers’ sense of smell and quality of life.

In Europe and the USA, around 20% of the general adult population has some form of smell dysfunction and this number rises to 75% for people aged between 70–80 years. Interventions to counter this, such as smell training, can make a significant difference to health, personal and emotional wellbeing in older age. Additionally, reliably recording a person’s smell capabilities can detect dysfunctions that can be an early sign of degenerative conditions (Dementia, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease), even a decade or more before the onset of cognitive or motor symptoms.

SmellHealth will not only provide technological innovation for smell delivery and control, but also enable the collection of reliable data, the creation of digital datasets based on smell performance and thus extend the benefits of personalised electronic healthcare records for monitoring, diagnosis, and prevention.

Project lead Prof Marianna Obrist said, The human sense of smell is powerful, it makes an important and yet often undervalued contribution to our health and wellbeing.This project enables us todesign novel digital smell healthcare applications and demonstrate their commercial viability; thus make a difference to peoples quality of life.”

Prof Obrist is co-founder of OWidgets Ltdand joined UCL in July 2020 as Professor of Multisensory Interfaces in the UCL Interaction Centre (UCLIC) within the Department of Computer Science. Her research focuses on how touch, taste and smell can be used in human-computer interaction (HCI). Dr Emanuela Maggioni, post-doctoral research fellow in Prof Obrist’s team at UCL, is spear-heading the commercialisation efforts as CEO and co-founder of OWidgets Ltd.

She has recently been appointed UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering’s Digital Deputy Director, which can be read more about on their website.

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The European Research Council Proof of Concept grant was one of 55 awarded in a recent round to top researchers. The grants will allow them grantees to explore the innovation potential of their scientific discoveries and bring the results of their frontier research closer to market. This final injection of €8.25 million pushes the total number of ERC Proof of Concept funded projects for 2020 to 166.

With the additional money researchers can, for example, investigate business opportunities, establish intellectual property rights or conduct technical validation for their frontier research findings.Since the scheme started in 2011, over 1000 projects have received Proof of Concept funding.