A novel application for cognitive evaluation in mountain ultramarathons: Olfactory assessment

Alessandro Tonacci, Lucia Billeci, Gennaro Tartarisco, Francesca Mastorci, Andrea Borghini, Simona Mrakic-Sposta, Sarah Moretti, Alessandra Vezzoli, Ugo Faraguna, Giovanni Pioggia, Giardini Guido, Lorenza Pratali

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective Olfactory function, a cognitive impairment biomarker, was evaluated in mountain ultramarathon (MUM) runners during the Tor des Géants race (332.5 km with an overall altitude gain of 24,000 m; altitude range 330-3296 m above the sea). Methods An Odor Identification Test was administered before (T0; n = 53), at 148.7 kms (T1; n = 32) and after the race (T2; n = 28). The effect of dehydration and sleep deprivation on olfactory function was assessed. Olfactory function was also assessed in non-MUM athletes and sedentary controls (C) at rest. Results A majority of the athletes completed the olfactory test at all time intervals. Olfactory function decreased throughout the race (T0: 13.8 ± 1.9, T1: 13.7 ± 1.6, T2: 13.1 ± 1.8; T0 vs T2 P =.01). There was no relationship with race time or sleep deprivation on the sense of smell throughout the competition. However, there was a combined effect with decreased olfaction during the second half of the race, while a poor relationship was seen between olfaction and total body water at midterm (T1: rs = -0.427; P =.019), but not at baseline or after the race. MUM athletes had similar olfactory scores to C (13.8 ± 1.9 vs 13.7 ± 1.4) and non-MUM (13.8 ± 1.9 vs 13.9 ± 1.6) athletes. Conclusions This pilot study showed the feasibility of olfactory evaluation as a minimally invasive cognitive impairment assessment. The test can be used in logistically difficult environments, adding scientific value to this promising method. Although olfaction decreased after prolonged physical activity, further studies are warranted to make the relationship between cognition and external factors (eg, sleep deprivation, dehydration) more clear.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)131-135
Number of pages5
JournalWilderness and Environmental Medicine
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 1 2016


  • altitude
  • dementia
  • nervous system diseases
  • psychophysiology
  • running

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Emergency Medicine


Dive into the research topics of 'A novel application for cognitive evaluation in mountain ultramarathons: Olfactory assessment'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this