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PLoS One. 2011;6(8):e23190. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0023190. Epub 2011 Aug 12.

Olfactory impairment is correlated with confabulation in alcoholism: towards a multimodal testing of orbitofrontal cortex.

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  • 1Neuroscience, Systems and Cognition (NEUROCS) Research Unit, Institute of Psychology, Catholic University of Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium.



Olfactory abilities are now a flourishing field in psychiatry research. As the orbitofrontal cortex appears to be simultaneously implicated in odour processing and executive impairments, it has been proposed that olfaction could constitute a cognitive marker of psychiatric states. While this assumption appears promising, very few studies have been conducted on this topic among psychopathological populations. The present study thus aimed at exploring the links between olfaction and executive functions. These links were evaluated using two tasks of comparable difficulty, one known to rely on orbitofrontal cortex processing (i.e., a confabulation task), and one not associated with this area (i.e., Stop-Signal task).


Twenty recently detoxified alcoholic individuals and twenty paired controls took part in an experiment evaluating olfactory abilities and executive functioning (i.e., Stop-Signal task and confabulation task). Comorbidities and potential biasing variables were also controlled for. Alcoholic individuals exhibited impaired performance for high-level olfactory processing and significant confabulation problems as compared to controls (but no deficit in Stop-Signal task), even when the influence of comorbidities was taken into account. Most importantly, olfactory abilities and confabulation rates were significantly correlated in both groups.


Alcoholism jointly leads to olfactory and memory source impairments, and these two categories of deficits are associated. These results strongly support the proposition that olfactory and confabulation measures both index orbitofrontal functioning, and suggest that olfaction could become a reliable cognitive marker in psychiatric disorders. Moreover, it underlines the need to take into account these olfactory and source memory impairments in a clinical context.

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