Smell is probably our most underappreciated sense. “If you ask people which sense they would be most willing to give up, it would be the olfactory system,” says Michael Leon, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Irvine. But a loss of smell has been linked to health complications such as depression and cognitive decline. And mounting evidence shows that olfactory training, which involves deliberately smelling strong scents on a regular basis, may help stave off that decline. Now a team of researchers led by Leon has successfully boosted cognitive performance by exposing people to smells while they sleep. Twenty participants—all older than 60 years and generally healthy—received six months of overnight olfactory enrichment, and all significantly improved their ability to recall lists of words compared with a control group. The study appeared in Frontiers in Neuroscience.

The scientists are unsure about how the overnight odors may have produced this result, but Leon notes that the neurons involved in olfaction have “direct superhighway access” to brain regions related to memory and emotion. In participants who received the treatment, the study authors observed physical changes in a brain structure that connects the memory and emotional centers—a pathway that often deteriorates as people age, especially in those with Alzheimer's disease.

Previous successful attempts to boost memory with odors typically relied on complicated interventions with multiple exposures a day. If the nighttime treatment proves successful in larger trials, it promises to be a less intrusive way to achieve similar effects, says Vidya Kamath, a neuropsychologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the recent study.

Larger trials may also help answer some remaining questions. The new study used widely available essential oils such as rose and eucalyptus, but researchers aren't sure if just any odor would get the same results. They don't know how much an odor's qualities—whether it's foul or pleasant to people, for example—affects the cognitive gains. It is also unclear how much novelty plays a role, says Michał Pieniak, a psychology researcher at the University of Wroclaw in Poland who has studied olfactory training.

Beyond stimulating the olfactory system, other interventions aimed at enriching people's sensory environment (such as dancing) have been associated with cognitive improvements in older people. Overnight odors could be a strong line for further study, but Pieniak cautions aromatherapy fans from running to buy diffusers. The results are promising but “preliminary” and should be replicated with more participants, he says. Leon plans to conduct a larger study later this year—work that he hopes will eliminate any whiff of doubt.