Behavioral changes in patients with seasonal affective disorder resemble seasonal changes in photoperiodic animals. Because the olfactory system has a modulatory role in seasonal photoperiodic responses in certain species, we hypothesized that olfactory function may differ between patients with seasonal affective disorder and healthy control subjects.
Fourteen patients who had winter seasonal affective disorder and 16 healthy volunteers were studied once in winter and once in the subsequent summer. We administered a phenyl ethyl alcohol detection threshold test to each side of the nose in a counterbalanced order, with the nostril contralateral to the tested site occluded. Patient and control data were compared using a 4-way repeated measure analysis of covariance (with group and gender as between-subjects factors, season and side-of-the-nose as within-subjects factors, and age as a covariate).
The patients exhibited lower thresholds than did the controls (F1,25 = 9.2; P = .006). There was no main effect of season.
In humans, marked seasonal behavioral rhythms with recurrent winter depression may be associated with a more acute sense of smell.