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Human sweat could be used to treat mental health problems

In a new study from the European Psychiatric Association, experts have found that odors from human sweat may be helpful in treating mental health disorders. In particular, the researchers demonstrated that social anxiety can be substantially reduced through exposure to human “chemo-signals,” or body odor.

Lead researcher Elisa Vigna of the Karolinska Institute will present the study results at the European Congress of Psychiatry in Paris.

“Our state of mind causes us to produce molecules (or chemo-signals) in sweat which communicate our emotional state and produce corresponding responses in the receivers,” said Vigna. “The results of our preliminary study show that combining these chemo-signals with mindfulness therapy seem to produce better results in treating social anxiety than can be achieved by mindfulness therapy alone.”

Overall, the team found that individuals who undertook one treatment session of mindfulness therapy together while being exposed to human body odors showed about 39 percent reductions in anxiety scores, explained Vigna.

Social anxiety is a fear of being around people in social situations, whether it’s at work or holiday gatherings. This type of anxiety makes it difficult to live a normal life without excessive worrying.

For the investigation, the experts exposed patients to the sweat samples while they were being treated for social anxiety with mindfulness therapy. The sweat samples were collected from volunteers who were watching short clips from movies that induced specific emotions, such as fear or happiness. The goal was to examine whether these emotions had an effect on the treatment.

“We found that the women in the group exposed to sweat from people who had been watching funny or fearful movies, responded better to mindfulness therapy than those who hadn’t been exposed,” said Vigna.

“We were a little surprised to find that the emotional state of the person producing the sweat didn’t differ in treatment outcomes – sweat produced while someone was happy had the same effect as someone who had been scared by a movie clip.  So there may be something about human chemo-signals in sweat generally which affects the response to treatment.”

It may be that simply being exposed to the presence of someone else has this effect, noted Vigna. 

“In fact, that is what we are testing now in a follow-up study with a similar design, but where we are also including sweat from individuals watching emotionally neutral documentaries.”

“This should allow us to tease out whether any potential therapy benefits stem from the unconscious perception of specific emotional signals, or whether it is simply to do with human presence, irrespective of emotion.”    

By Chrissy Sexton, Editor

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