Study Uncovers Memory Aid: A Scent During Sleep

New York Times

Scientists studying how sleep affects memory have found that the whiff of a familiar scent can help a slumbering brain better remember things that it learned the evening before. The smell of roses — delivered to people’s nostrils as they studied and, later, as they slept — improved their performance on a memory test by about 13 percent.

The new study, appearing today in the journal Science, is the first rigorous test of the effect of odor on human memory during sleep. The results, whether or not they can help students cram for tests, clarify the picture of what the sleeping brain does with newly learned material and help illuminate what it takes for this process to succeed.

Researchers have long known that sleep is crucial to laying down new memories, and studies in the 1980s and ’90s showed that exposing the sleeping brain to certain cues — the sound of clicking, for instance — could enhance the process. But it is only in recent years that scientists have begun to understand how this is possible.

“The idea didn’t get any traction with scientists back then, because it didn’t make sense,” said Dr. Robert Stickgold, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard, who was not involved in the research. The new study, Dr. Stickgold added, “shows not only that sleep is important for declarative memory, but also allows us to look at exactly when and how this process might happen.”

In the study, neuroscientists from two German institutions, the University of Lübeck and the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, had groups of medical students play a version of concentration, memorizing the location of card pairs on a computer screen. Upon learning the location of each pair, the students received a burst of rose scent in their noses through masks they wore. The researchers delivered the fragrance in bursts because the brain quickly adjusts to strong smells in the air and begins to ignore them.

The students went to sleep about a half-hour later, with electrodes on their heads tracking the depth of their slumber. Neuroscientists divide sleep into stages, including deep (or slow wave) sleep and the shallow, dream-rich state called rapid eye movement (or REM) sleep.

The brain is thought to process newly acquired facts, figures and locations most efficiently in deep sleep. This restful state usually descends within the first 20 minutes or so after head meets pillow and may last an hour or longer, then recur once or more later in the night. The researchers delivered pulses of rose bouquet during this slow-wave state; the odor did not interrupt sleep, and the students said they had no memory of it.

But their brains noticed, and retained an almost perfect memory of card locations. The students scored an average of 97 percent on the card game, compared with 86 percent when they played the game and slept without being perfumed by nighttime neuroscience fairies.

The students did not get the same boost when they received bursts of the fragrance just before sleep or in REM sleep rather than in deep slumber, and their improvements were not due to practice, the study found.

The study’s results could eventually help doctors improve patients’ memory by devising treatments directed at deep sleep. As they age, people spend less and less time each night in such sleep, and existing sleep medications do not generally increase it. But pharmaceutical companies are investigating compounds that do so.

Previous research has shown that regions of the cortex, the thinking and planning part of the brain, communicate during deep sleep with a sliver of tissue deeper in the brain called the hippocampus, which records each day’s memories. What is most likely happening in that communication, the study’s authors argue, is that the cortex is telling the hippocampus to reactivate the same neurons that fired when a particular fact was noticed or learned. The hippocampus does so, encoding the firing sequence in the cortex and thereby consolidating the memory.

“We would expect spontaneous reactivation driven by the slow-wave sleep, but by presenting the rose odor cues we intensified this activation and enhanced the transfer of these memories,” said Dr. Jan Born, a neuroscientist at Lübeck who undertook the study with Björn Rasch, Christian Büchel and Steffen Gais.

American Express Addresses RFID People Tracking Plans

Promises Full Patent Review, Tracking Notice, Chip-Free Option

From Katherine Albrecht –

The top brass at American Express, chagrined at the discovery of its people tracking plans, met with CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) last week to discuss the issue. One outcome of the meeting was a promise by American Express to review its entire patent portfolio and ensure that any people-tracking plans be accompanied by language requiring consumer notice and consent.

The meeting was organized after CASPIAN called attention to one of the company’s more troublesome patent applications. That patent application, titled “Method and System for Facilitating a Shopping Experience,” describes a Minority Report style blueprint for monitoring consumers through RFID-enabled objects, like the American Express Blue Card.

According to the patent, RFID readers called “consumer trackers” would be placed in store shelving to pick up “consumer identification signals” emitted by RFID-embedded objects carried by shoppers. These would be used to identify people, track their movements, and observe their behavior.

The patent also suggested such people-tracking systems could “be located in a common area of a school, shopping center, bus station or other place of public accommodation.”

Allegations of American Express people-tracking blueprints first came to light at a conference sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America in Washington, D.C. last month. There, Dr. Katherine Albrecht, Founder and Director of CASPIAN, revealed the patent pending plans that she and her “Spychips” co-author Liz McIntyre uncovered in their ongoing RFID research.

Soon thereafter, American Express arranged for four of its vice presidents, including the vice presidents of Contactless Payments and Public Affairs, to meet with CASPIAN leaders in a phone conference.

“We are pleased that American Express responded to our concerns,” said Albrecht. “It’s clear the company is thinking about privacy issues and wants to address them constructively. However, we had hoped that American Express would renounce its people tracking plans altogether and be more sensitive to the fact that placing RFID tags in consumer items, like credit cards, puts consumers at risk for surreptitious tracking by others.”

In response to CASPIAN concerns, American Express also promised that it would make a chip-free version of its credit card available to concerned consumers who ask for it.

“Offering a chipless credit card is a positive step and should serve as an example to the rest of the industry,” said McIntyre. “Consumers don’t like RFID technology. Contrary to American Express ads, most people would rather leave home without it.”

The complete text of the American Express people tracking patent application is posted at:

This press release is also available online at:

Priests to Purify Site After Bush Visit


GUATEMALA CITY – Mayan priests will purify a sacred archaeological site to eliminate “bad spirits” after President Bush visits next week, an official with close ties to the group said Thursday.

“That a person like (Bush), with the persecution of our migrant brothers in the United States, with the wars he has provoked, is going to walk in our sacred lands, is an offense for the Mayan people and their culture,” Juan Tiney, the director of a Mayan nongovernmental organization with close ties to Mayan religious and political leaders, said Thursday.

Bush’s seven-day tour of Latin America includes a stopover beginning late Sunday in Guatemala. On Monday morning he is scheduled to visit the archaeological site Iximche on the high western plateau in a region of the Central American country populated mostly by Mayans.

Tiney said the “spirit guides of the Mayan community” decided it would be necessary to cleanse the sacred site of “bad spirits” after Bush’s visit so that their ancestors could rest in peace. He also said the rites _ which entail chanting and burning incense, herbs and candles _ would prepare the site for the third summit of Latin American Indians March 26-30.

Bush’s trip has already has sparked protests elsewhere in Latin America, including protests and clashes with police in Brazil hours before his arrival. In Bogota, Colombia, which Bush will visit on Sunday, 200 masked students battled 300 riot police with rocks and small homemade explosives.

The tour is aimed at challenging a widespread perception that the United States has neglected the region and at combatting the rising influence of Venezuelan leftist President Hugo Chavez, who has called Bush “history’s greatest killer” and “the devil.”

Iximche, 30 miles west of the capital of Guatemala City, was founded as the capital of the Kaqchiqueles kingdom before the Spanish conquest in 1524.