The neurophysiological shape of wine expertise (and why reports that somms are Alzheimer’s-resistant are wrong)

Even if you think of your brain as a muscle, you probably don’t think about it literally bulking up as a result of exercise. It does, at least in some cases. Master sommeliers – professionals who we assume (and sure hope) have intensively developed senses of smell – have more white matter in regions of the brain associated with olfaction, according to new research (open-access) comparing images of master somm’s brains with those of randomly wine inexpert university students. Very similar patterns of brain-buffness have been found in the heads of professional perfumers.

There’s a funny paradox at play here. On the one hand, smell is probably the least understood of the senses – at least if we’re only counting the canonical ones. On the other, in part because it’s so little understood, smell is a favorite subject for this kind of study. You might suspect that smell is also useful for being simple and isolated from other elements of mental function. It’s not.

One reason for being interested in the brain’s anatomy of smell is to test the limits of neuroplasticity – how much our brains can change after we become adults. (How much can it change? A lot more than previous models of human development allowed.) At least in the United States, most wine experts will have learned their craft as adults. Another reason for smell-focused research is that olfactory regions are among the first to deteriorate in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, to the extent that smell impairment is being considered an early warning sign of those diseases. That link is especially interesting in light of the mountain of scientific and lay-person evidence linking smell with memory.

I’m still waiting for the study investigating whether well-trained oenophiles have better memories or are less prone to Alzheimer’s. Which, contrary to reports by writers who actually earn salaries for their work, is not what this study did. This is observational research about neuroplasticity and developing expertise, about the capacity of the adult brain to change shape with training. No one investigated rates of Alzheimer’s amongst aging sommeliers. No one gave them memory tests. Certainly no one sat around and watched the somms who took part in this study into their retirement years to check up on their mental acuity. Even if they had, too few sommeliers were involved to make any kind of statistically significant judgment even about a disease that the US National Institute on Aging calls the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.

We can say that the effects of intensive sensory training are apparent on an MRI. We can’t say that becoming an expert wine-sniffer prevents Alzheimer’s. Not yet.

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