Those who smell and taste wine for a living are apparently doing more than just expanding their palates. According to a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the brains of Master Sommeliers seem to be more resistant to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s than those of the average person.
Scientists analyzed MRI scans of Master Sommeliers and compared them to those of non-wine-experts, to determine how the human brain responds when it gains a certain level of expertise.
There are currently just 219 Master Sommeliers worldwide, all of whom must pass a rigorous and in-depth exam to earn the title. The certification process can take several years and is the highest professional distinction one can attain in the beverage service industry.
That rigorous study pays off in a number of ways beyond working in top restaurants and getting to taste high-dollar wine. Scientists report that sommeliers see “heightened activation in the right olfactory and memory regions of the brain” while performing an olfactory task — i.e. smelling and tasting wine.
In other words, the parts of sommeliers’ brains that deal with smell tend to be more “specialized” and thicker than the average person’s. That bit of information is pretty unsurprising, considering sommeliers are tasked with using their sense of smell so often.
But because they smell so often, and in such a sophisticated way, their memory seems to be benefiting, too. As Psychology Today explains, incoming smells are first processed by the olfactory bulb, which is directly connected to two parts of the brain strongly implicated in emotion and memory: the amygdala and hippocampus. Other senses, like sight, sound, and touch, don’t pass through the brain the same way. That’s why a certain odor — freshly-baked cookies, a particular flower — often triggers such strong memories.
According to the study, sommeliers’ specialized olfactory systems could mean that they are less susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, etc.) than the average person.
From the study:
Our results indicate that sommeliers’ brains show specialization in the expected regions of the olfactory and memory networks, and also in regions important in integration of internal sensory stimuli and external cues. Overall, these differences suggest that specialized expertise and training might result in enhancements in the brain well into adulthood. This is particularly important given the regions involved, which are the first to be impacted by many neurodegenerative diseases.
The study further notes that the region of the brain involved in olfactory memory is associated with experience. So, continued training will result in morphological changes of the brain — the more wine one smells, the more specialized the brain can become.
Though scientists involved in the study note that their findings were “statistically robust,” it’s only a pilot study, and further research is still needed. (It also raises the question of whether other professions that rely heavily on the olfactory system — say, perfumers — reap similar benefits.) But oenophiles will surely be encouraged by the notion that their love of wine may be keeping their brains sharp for years to come.
• Structural and Functional MRI Differences in Master Sommeliers: A Pilot Study on Expertise in the Brain [Frontiers in Human Neuroscience]
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