The Power Of The Nose


Medicine: Patients with smell and taste problems flock to a specialist's office in Chicago, and may just inspire one of his many studies.

February 02, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO - About 15 months ago, Betty Dayron says, "the whole world started to smell like Italian soap."

In August, Bill Daniels stopped tasting his wife's baklava, a tooth-rottingly sweet Greek dessert. Confused, he experimented, placing a few grains of sugar on his tongue.

"Nothing," he says, sighing at the memory. "It was just texture - like sand, almost."

And Pat Mazzeffi can't get over the "slimy, pasty feel" on her tongue that she says leaves her with a constant metallic taste.

After numerous visits to their physicians and fruitless appointments with ear, nose and throat specialists, these three Chicago residents - and hundreds of others from all over the world - have ended up here, in the odorless Water Tower Place suite of Dr. Alan R. Hirsch.

Twenty years ago, Hirsch, dubbed "the Magellan of the nasal passages," started the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation. It is one of just a handful of organizations in the country devoted to diagnosing individual smell and taste problems and conducting broad research on the two senses.

"Really what we're looking at is the scientific basis of aromatherapy," Hirsch said recently at his clinic.

The foundation's two missions work hand in hand; the doctor says each of his 85 studies was inspired by patients.

For example, Hirsch noticed that about a quarter of his patients who had experienced smell loss also had a diminished sex drive. That observation led to clinical studies that culminated in Hirsch's second book, Scentsational Sex, which asserts that women find the smell of cucumber arousing while pumpkin pie puts men in the mood. Oddly, it finds that neither sex is turned on by a variety of colognes and perfumes.

Another study-turned-book is Scentsational Weight Loss, and Hirsch's third book, published in 2001, is called What Flavor Is Your Personality?

Hirsch doesn't wear cologne and favors brownies to ice cream flavored like banana cream pie - even though his book on food and personality says people who like that kind of ice cream tend to be empathetic and easygoing.

"It's a lot easier to change your favorite food than it is to change your personality," Hirsch jokes.

The commercial aspect of his lighthearted studies has caused some doctors to wonder if Hirsch is more publicist than scientist or medical professional.

"He has achieved considerable popular notoriety," says Dr. Richard L. Doty, who founded the nation's first smell and taste research organization in 1980. "He's done lots of creative research that isn't really mainstream."

Doty's Smell and Taste Center is based at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and was financed by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Hirsch's foundation is affiliated with Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago but has no ties to a university.

Hirsch defends his work, saying he does research that helps people, though he acknowledges that much of it does have the potential for commercial interest.

And, he says, he helps patients overcome problems that are, at a minimum, frustrating and confusing and that can even become dangerous. Smell and taste, he points out, are used to detect poisons, smoke and spoiled food.

"A lot of patients who come in here have already seen six to eight doctors," he says. (One of his newest patients has seen 22.) "The doctors don't know what the problem is, their family doesn't necessarily believe them - they're at their wits' end by the time I see them."

That desperation may explain why Mazzeffi, 50, a teacher with the metallic taste in her mouth, doesn't seem to mind when Hirsch holds her tongue between his latex-gloved fingers and dyes it bright blue and green.

"You have a very high number of fungiform papillae," Hirsch declares after examining a small area of Mazzeffi's tongue in a darkened room. "You might call them taste buds." (The dye helps him get an accurate count of them.)

Mazzeffi, who says she has a number of medical complications, tells Hirsch she can't continue taking a vitamin he had recommended because it upsets her stomach. She'll try a different prescription - one suited to her abundance of taste buds.

"The good thing about coming here is that he gives you hope," Mazzeffi says. "Not knowing what the problem is, or if there even is a problem, is terrible. My family is supportive, but they think I'm nuts."

Just when the diagnostic techniques - which also include dabbing sweet, salty, sour and bitter solutions in different parts of the mouth - are starting to seem as if they belong at a middle school science fair, Hirsch sets an electrogustometer on the counter.

He uses the Japanese machine - it looks a lot like a torture device once its plastic arm is clamped across a patient's neck - to perform an electrical test on Daniels, 60, a telecommunications professional who says he can't taste sweet flavors anymore.

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