Can becoming a wine expert actually change your brain structure? A study published in Human Brain Mapping suggests that sommelier training can increase olfactory bulb volume and change the cortical thickness of some brain regions.
Brain plasticity is essential for people to learn and master new skills. Improvements in brain plasticity can be seen for people in many different professions, such as athletes, musicians, and even taxi drivers. These effects are observable on an MRI neuroimaging and can be either structural or functional.
The function of the olfactory bulb, the first stop of processing smell in our brains, can be observed this way, as well as cortical thickness, which indicates grey matter function. While studies have been done on sommeliers and perfumers before, they have been cross-sectional. The new research allowed sommeliers to be compared to a control group to assess brain differences.
For their study, Gozde Filiz and colleagues used 12 sommelier students and 13 control students from Canada to serve as their sample. Sommelier students underwent 1,200 hours of training and 905 hours of work experience as sommeliers over 18 months, while the control group consisted of students in different fields of study. All participants underwent brain imaging and tests to assess olfactory bulb volume, olfactory performance and memory, odor detection, discrimination and identification, and cortical thickness.
Results showed that olfactory bulb volume significantly increased for sommelier students throughout their training, but did not increase for the control group during the same time period. Interestingly, while the right entorhinal cortex increased in thickness, other areas of the brain actually decreased in thickness for sommelier students.
Olfactory performance did not increase for sommeliers as they completed their training and there were no significant group differences between the performance of the sommeliers or the controls on this measure. This suggests that the brain changes shown do not correlate with increased olfactory function.
This study took steps into better understanding how a specialized smelling skill can affect brain functioning. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that this study utilized a small sample size, making it difficult to know how well the results would generalize.
“In conclusion, this study aimed at exploring the effects of training-related brain plasticity in brain,” the researchers wrote. “Unlike other studies in which olfactory training consists of smelling a few odors every day during several weeks, the olfactory training we evaluated here is not as experimental since it is a sommelier training leading students to become professionals.”
“[Olfactory bulb] volume increased during their training; we also observed local increases or decreases of cortical thickness that support the overproduction-pruning model of plasticity according to which changes in the brain are nonlinear. It is worth to note that the positive changes in entorhinal cortex and the negative changes in other regions might be a question of timing. It could be that not every region evolves at the same rate.”
The study, “Olfactory bulb volume and cortical thickness evolve during sommelier training“, was authored by Gözde Filiz, Daphnée Poupon, Sarah Banks, Pauline Fernandez, and Johannes Frasnelli.