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Can smell control your blood pressure? New research says yes

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine have made a remarkable discovery that could change the way we think about smell as a vital health metric for blood pressure.

The sense of smell is incredibly fast. That fresh-baked cookie aroma that fills you with warmth or the stench of garbage that makes you wrinkle your nose in disgust. Amazingly, your smell might be secretly working double-duty as a key player in regulating your blood pressure.

Smell and blood pressure

Our noses are filled with specialized sensors known as olfactory receptors. They’re how we pick up on the countless smells that surround us. But are the receptors only located in our noses?

A specific receptor, called Olfr558, was found in an unexpected place – nestled within the blood vessels and special hormone-making cells of the kidneys. The kidneys play a central role in controlling blood pressure, so this unusual placement was an instant puzzle.

Why would an “odor sensor” be nosing around in our blood pressure system? That’s what the team was determined to find out, and what they uncovered could be game-changing.

Varying blood pressure patterns

All genders have different blood pressures. Before menopause, women usually have blood pressure about 10 points lower than men. While scientists believe sex hormones contribute to this difference, the complete biological puzzle remains unsolved.

“Despite the well-known differences in blood pressure between females and males, most clinical guidelines have the same thresholds for treatment,” noted Dr. Jennifer Pluznick, associate professor of physiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

The team decided to investigate whether smell receptor Olfr558 played a role in this sex-based blood pressure mystery. Their findings were eye-opening:

Smell receptor in mouse

Male mice sporting the Olfr558 receptor had naturally higher blood pressure than their female counterparts. But, when they used mice genetically engineered to lack Olfr558, something unexpected occurred.

Males experienced a drop in blood pressure, while females experienced an increase. It was as if the blood pressure gap between the sexes magically disappeared.

Humans aren’t different

The scientists then delved into a massive database of human genetic information. People with a rare variation in the human version of smell receptor Olfr558, known as OR51E1, also lacked the usual blood pressure differences between sexes (for those under 50).

Study implications

“Taking a closer look at the fundamental, scientific basis for sex differences in blood pressure may eventually help clinicians think about blood pressure treatment in new ways,” said Pluznick.

Moreover, researchers still need to pinpoint exactly how the Olfr558 receptor influences this vital system. “Our work has not identified a direct molecular signaling pathway,” noted Pluznick.

Future directions

This “odor sensor” could lead to treatments for high blood pressure (hypertension). It could mean highly personalized medicine, perhaps even involving something that activates our noses alongside traditional treatments.

While that’s still a distant dream, this discovery certainly opens the door to exciting possibilities that the medical world hasn’t explored yet.

This incredible research shows us just how complex and surprising our bodies truly are. A simple odor sensor, designed for sniffing out our environment, might hold a secret to managing blood pressure.

The study is published in Science Advances.


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