REVIEW | Institution: Centre for Neuroscience, The University of Edinburgh
The sense of smell is set apart from other sensory modalities. Odours possess the capacity to trigger immediately strong emotional memories. Moreover, odorous stimuli provide a higher degree of memory retention than other sensory stimuli. Odour perception, even in its most elemental form - olfaction - already involves limbic structures. This early involvement is not paralleled in other sensory modalities. Bearing in mind the considerable connectivity with limbic structures, and the fact that an activation of the amygdala is capable of instantaneously evoking emotions and facilitating the encoding of memories, it is unsurprising that the sense of smell has its characteristic nature. The aim of this review is to analyse current understanding of higher olfactory information processing as it relates to the ability of odours to spontaneously cue highly vivid, affectively toned, and often very old autobiographical memories (episodes known anecdotally as Proust phenomena). Particular emphasis is placed on the diversity of functions attributed to the amygdala. Its role in modulating the encoding and retrieval of long-term memory is investigated with reference to lesion, electrophysiological, immediate early gene, and functional imaging studies in both rodents and humans. Additionally, the influence of hormonal modulation and the adrenergic system on emotional memory storage is outlined. I finish by proposing a schematic of some of the critical neural pathways that underlie the odour-associated encoding and retrieval of emotionally toned autobiographical memories.