In Spring 2020, NEXT magazine covered the pioneering work of VCU Health researchers to restore a sense of smell in patients experiencing anosmia, or complete loss of the sense, through electrical stimulation. Patients who experience permanent loss of smell usually have experienced head trauma that severs the connections between neurons in the nose and the brain’s olfactory bulb, but anosmia can also be caused by viral infections, as the world became keenly aware of in March.
Loss of smell and/or taste was quickly identified as a symptom commonly reported in patients who contract the novel coronavirus. Many health organizations identified loss of smell or taste as significant enough to warrant evaluation for the virus. What scientists did not have a clear picture of at the time was how long this symptom might endure. That’s where VCU Health’s team has been focused.
“Our initial research looked at presentation and saw, among other things, that almost 40 percent of people presented with loss of smell as their first or only symptom of COVID,” said Evan Reiter, M.D., professor of otolaryngology and medical director of the VCU Health Smell and Taste Disorders Center. “That underscored the need to incorporate smell loss as a hallmark symptom of COVID and the importance of raising awareness of that.”
VCU Health’s Smell and Taste Disorders Center, one of few centers of its kind in the U.S., was uniquely positioned to evaluate long-term effects of the virus on sense of smell and taste. Early in the pandemic, Dr. Reiter led a team of researchers to design a patient survey and enroll participants so they could build a better understanding of smell and taste changes associated with coronavirus disease.
“We wanted to set up a longitudinal database so that we could watch people through the whole process and see what they went through and see how they’re recovering,” Dr. Reiter said. “We’re seeing the vast majority of people who experience losses are recovering within a few weeks — but not all of them. That’s one of the things we’ll continue to watch.”
The group recently received $25,000 in funding through the MEDARVA Foundation, which allowed them to continue the nationwide longitudinal survey of COVID-19 patients who experienced smell loss as one of their symptoms.
“We thought Dr. Reiter’s study was very timely,” said Bruce Kupper, CEO of the MEDARVA Foundation. “It’s important to focus on the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the patient. We’ve found that smell and taste have a huge impact on a person’s quality of life. Our history at MEDARVA is that we’re very focused on the ears, nose and throat, and we’ve provided a fair amount of funding in smell and taste research. We saw this as a natural progression of our interest and efforts to understand more about smell and taste and how different diseases affect them.”
The VCU research team included Daniel Coelho, M.D., professor in the Department of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery at VCU School of Medicine; Richard Costanzo, Ph.D., the center’s research director and professor emeritus in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics; and Zachary Kons, a third-year medical student at VCU. Their research published in the November issue of the American Journal of Otolaryngology, and the survey continues to monitor and track participants thanks to MEDARVA’s support.
“The physician-researcher is becoming a scarce resource,” said MEDARVA’s Kupper, “Anything we can do to continue to help keep that concept going strong is important. In Dr. Reiter’s case, he’s able to take his research and really implement the insights in his practice.”
End note: Dr. Reiter's research study continues to welcome participants who have noticed a change in their sense of smell or taste during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you or a loved one is interested in enrolling, visit go.vcu.edu/covidsmell.
If you would like to support the research into smell loss related to COVID-19, please contact Brian Thomas, MCV Foundation vice president and chief development officer, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 804-828-0067.