University of Pisa: The project POTION studies the scent of emotion

29 Oct 2018 | Network Updates | Update from University of Pisa
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Professor Pasquale Scilingo.

The study coordinated by the University of Pisa, and which includes 10 international partners, has been awarded over 6.5 million euros in European funding under Horizon 2020 FET programme.

What does fear smell like? And happiness? When we feel emotions do we emit substances specific to that particular emotional state which can be ‘smelled’ by our peers? This is certainly true of animals, but for human beings it has yet to be proved. Pasquale Scilingo, professor at the Department of Information Engineering (DII) of the University of Pisa, who heads the Computational Physiology group at the Research Center “E. Piaggio”, is coordinating a project whose aim is to study whether the emotions we feel lead us to emit specific molecules, identifiable through the sense of smell, by analyzing sweat.

The project called POTION has been awarded over 6,500,000 euros, for a period of five years during which time Professor Enzo Pasquale Scilingo will coordinate a consortium of 10 international partners from 8 different countries, each with a scientific profile which is complementary, multidisciplinary and of consolidated experience in the research sector referred to in the themes of the project. A team from the Department of Chemistry and Industrial Chemistry of the University of Pisa, coordinated by Professor Fabio di Francesco, will also be taking part in the project. Their task will be to identify and synthesize the molecules in question, using the most advanced analytical techniques.

“POTION aims to study the human capacity to transmit emotions and influence social behaviour through body odour: chemosignals,” explains Scilingo. “When we feel emotions such as happiness and fear, the human body produces chemosignals which are released through sweat and which could be emotionally contagious the moment they are perceived by others. The reaction to these chemosignals could induce inclusive behaviour and confidence in the percipient, or exclusive behaviour and separation, and consequently, it could modulate social interaction between individuals.”

POTION will face two complex and at the same time fascinating challenges: the first will include the chemical analysis of the human chemosignals in order to identify which molecules are released during the emotions of happiness and fear; these two emotions can be seen as the extreme points on a scale of emotions and are fundamental in activating opposing social interaction. The second challenge will use the results of the chemical analysis to artificially synthesize the human chemosignals linked to happiness and fear. The objective is to develop an innovative system of controlled release of the artificial chemosignals aimed at guiding the social response strategy.

“This new technological paradigm will be tested in both social and clinical scenarios,” adds Scilingo. “In the first case, the management of feelings of faith, presence and inclusion will be examined in depth in both virtual and real, social contexts (such as social networks). In the second case, POTION will propose potential new support in the therapeutic treatment of social anxiety, phobias and depression.” The results from the POTION study could have a strong impact not only on the scientific community, through a wider understanding of the basics of social and emotional behaviour, but also on society itself by improving social relations and well-being in general.

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