Promoting Social Interaction through Emotional Body Odours (POTION)

The way chemistry influences human communication is one of the most intriguing and debated topics. More specifically, the nature of chemosignals and their sphere of influence on social interaction is a very important key to understanding human behaviour.

POTION proposes a novel technological paradigm to delve deeper into the understanding of social interaction, combining new knowledge about the chemical composition of human social chemosignals together with a novel olfactory-based technology designed to drive social behaviour.

A first challenging analysis on human chemosignals to delineate the chemical underpinnings of the emotions of happiness and fear will be carried out since they are the representative emotions that drive approach and avoidance behaviour, i.e., the fundamental building blocks of social interaction between individuals of the same species. Results of this analysis will be used to artificially synthesize the chemosignals of these two emotions, which will provide the basis of an innovative computer-controlled odour delivery system able to drive the approach-avoidance social strategy. This breakthrough device will be controlled in a closed loop by the social-emotional state of the subjects evaluated through a novel computational neural model. The POTION system will be applied and tested in both social and clinical scenarios. In the social scenarios, we venture to reveal how olfaction clues work in managing the feelings of trust, presence and inclusion, in both virtual, real, and social media contexts. In the clinical scenario, POTION will propose a new human chemosignal-based diagnosis and treatment for social anxiety, phobias and depression, which are known to all share impaired social functioning. POTION will provide further insight to the fundamental underpinnings of human behaviour with the goal to help establish healthy social relationships through trust, leading to an overall improvement in wellbeing.

KI's role in the POTION project involves the investigation of human chemosignals in different groups of patients with social impairment, in which an alteration of the chemotactic signalling can be hypothesised. Specifically, we will collaborate with the project's partners to design study protocols, analyse data and interpret results of studies on the role of fear and happiness odour for supporting diagnosis and enhancing treatment among patients with depression and social anxiety disorder.

In this framework, a preliminary study was designed to examine the different effects of human chemosignals when administered during mindfulness treatment. The study is a single-blind between-subjects randomized trial design with 1 between subject factor (3 levels, odour type: happiness chemosignal, fearful chemosignal or clear air). At least 30 subjects per group are recruited (one group with symptoms of depression and one with symptoms of social anxiety) (in total 60 subjects). The subjects of each diagnosis group are randomly allocated to an odour group (clean air, happiness or fear chemosignals) at the beginning of the trial. The study is conducted over two consecutive days and with an online follow-up after a week. During the trial days, after completing baseline questionnaires, subjects undergo the mindfulness intervention while they are exposed to the odour corresponding to the group to which they have been randomized, after which they complete the same questionnaires than at baseline.

Psychological outcome is measured through the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory and the Profile of Mood State questionnaires. Analysis of variance is performed to assess outcome differences between groups. Preliminary results on a subsample of 32 patients show a trend of deeper reduction of anxiety symptoms at post-treatment among odour-exposed groups compared to clean air. Final results on the complete sample will be published once the study is complete.