Olfactory sniffing signals consciousness in unresponsive patients with brain injuries

Anat Arzi*, Liron Rozenkrantz, Lior Gorodisky, Danit Rozenkrantz, Yael Holtzman, Aharon Ravia, Tristan A. Bekinschtein, Tatyana Galperin, Ben Zion Krimchansky, Gal Cohen, Anna Oksamitni, Elena Aidinoff, Yaron Sacher, Noam Sobel

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


After severe brain injury, it can be difficult to determine the state of consciousness of a patient, to determine whether the patient is unresponsive or perhaps minimally conscious1, and to predict whether they will recover. These diagnoses and prognoses are crucial, as they determine therapeutic strategies such as pain management, and can underlie end-of-life decisions2,3. Nevertheless, there is an error rate of up to 40% in determining the state of consciousness in patients with brain injuries4,5. Olfaction relies on brain structures that are involved in the basic mechanisms of arousal6, and we therefore hypothesized that it may serve as a biomarker for consciousness7. Here we use a non-verbal non-task-dependent measure known as the sniff response8–11 to determine consciousness in patients with brain injuries. By measuring odorant-dependent sniffing, we gain a sensitive measure of olfactory function10–15. We measured the sniff response repeatedly over time in patients with severe brain injuries and found that sniff responses significantly discriminated between unresponsive and minimally conscious states at the group level. Notably, at the single-patient level, if an unresponsive patient had a sniff response, this assured future regaining of consciousness. In addition, olfactory sniff responses were associated with long-term survival rates. These results highlight the importance of olfaction in human brain function, and provide an accessible tool that signals consciousness and recovery in patients with brain injuries.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)428-433
Number of pages6
Issue number7809
StatePublished - 28 May 2020
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Limited.


Dive into the research topics of 'Olfactory sniffing signals consciousness in unresponsive patients with brain injuries'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this