Electrical stimulation of the trigeminal nerve improves olfaction in healthy individuals: A randomized, double-blind, sham-controlled trial

Brain Stimul. 2022 May-Jun;15(3):761-768. doi: 10.1016/j.brs.2022.05.005. Epub 2022 May 11.


Background: Both activated by environmental odorants, there is a clear role for the intranasal trigeminal and olfactory nerves in smell function. Unfortunately, our ability to perceive odorants decreases with age or with injury, and limited interventions are available to treat smell loss.

Objective: We investigated whether electrical stimulation of the trigeminal nerve via trigeminal nerve stimulation (TNS) or transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) modulates odor sensitivity in healthy individuals.

Methods: We recruited 20 healthy adults (12 Female, mean age = 27) to participate in this three-visit, randomized, double-blind, sham-controlled trial. Participants were randomized to receive one of three stimulation modalities (TNS, tDCS, or sham) during each of their visits. Odor detection thresholds were obtained at baseline, immediately post-intervention, and 30-min post-intervention. Furthermore, participants were asked to complete a sustained attention task and mood assessments before odor detection testing.

Results: Findings reveal a timeXcondition interaction for guaiacol (GUA) odorant detection thresholds (F (3.188, 60.57) = 3.833, P = 0.0125), but not phenyl ethyl alcohol (PEA) odorant thresholds. At 30-min post-stimulation, both active TNS and active tDCS showed significantly increased sensitivity to GUA compared to sham TNS (Sham TNS = -8.30% vs. Active TNS = 9.11%, mean difference 17.43%, 95% CI 5.674 to 29.18, p = 0.0044; Sham TNS = -8.30% vs. Active tDCS = 13.58%, mean difference 21.89%, 95% CI 10.47 to 33.32, p = 0.0004).

Conclusion: TNS is a safe, simple, noninvasive method for boosting olfaction. Future studies should investigate the use of TNS on smell function across different stimulation parameters, odorants, and patient populations.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Smell*
  • Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation* / methods
  • Trigeminal Nerve / physiology