Alumneye in tech: Sniffly helps recover COVID-19 smell and taste loss

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By Sakina Chaudary

After they both contracted COVID-19 and experienced smell loss, two Canadian entrepreneurs created Sniffly, a virtual therapy program that delivers a series of video-based smell training exercises and self-assessments to aid in smell and taste recovery.

The Sniffly program is the latest tool used by a growing number of doctors, including ear, nose and throat specialists, looking to improve patients’ lives post-COVID by teaching them new habits and routines that can benefit their smell recovery. The program launched in July 2021 and now has almost 2,000 people enrolled. 

Armin Faraji graduated from Ryerson’s retail management program in 2016 and Bobby Rasouli graduated from the chemistry program at York University before studying medicine in the U.K. Together, through Sniffly, the childhood friends developed a curriculum that covers the anatomy of smell and taste systems, the causes of dysfunction and ways to develop a routine to regain a sense of taste and smell. The Sniffly program is free and open to anyone but was developed initially for COVID-19 patients.

Faraji said that he and Rasouli are paying out of pocket to host the program and will continue to keep it a free resource for the public as long as they can. Faraji has a background in building digital products and was able to design everything independently. 

A data review published in June 2020 pooled information from other studies to determine how many COVID-19 patients presented symptoms of smell and taste loss. They determined out of 8,400 people who had contracted COVID-19, 41 per cent had experienced smell and/or taste loss in varying degrees. 

The main focus of the program involves using a smell training kit and diary, practicing smelling and keeping a progress record

Rasouli cites German researcher Thomas Hummel and a paper he published in 2009 as the forefather of this method of smell training—also referred to as olfactory training. The method entails smelling four different scents, twice daily, once in the morning and again once at night. Each time you smell-train, you smell each scent in three sets of five sniffs and it should be done for a period of at least twelve weeks. 

Both Faraji and Rasouli tested this method on themselves, replicating Hummel’s 2009 study on smell loss. Witnessing great improvements in their sense of smell, they decided to research further and develop the Sniffly program. 

“The olfactory nerve is neuroplastic. By practicing different smells, you’re helping that nerve regenerate,” said Rasouli. This is referred to as neuroplasticity, which is shown to improve during smell training. According to Faraji, neuroplasticity is an umbrella term used to refer to the brain’s ability to adapt and change by reorganizing its neural networks.

The Sniffly program is delivered as a series of 17 videos. The introduction chapter discusses the importance of taste and smell in the average person’s daily life and how they affect different age groups. The second chapter covers olfaction, the basic anatomy and physiology involved with smelling, along with the definitions of medical terms that apply to this field. 

The main focus of the program involves using a smell training kit and diary, practicing smelling and keeping a progress record. Rasouli recommends consulting this program if you are dealing with COVID-19 related smell and taste loss as there is “nothing to lose, no harm.”

The last part of the course touches on techniques to recover taste, as it’s intertwined with one’s sense of smell. The final chapter of the program provides knowledge on the interrelation between smell and taste. This part of the course is largely informative and includes some tips on how people can stimulate their taste by describing optimal temperatures for different flavours and breathing tips while chewing to maximize retronasal breathing.

The entire course is roughly three hours in duration, and the smell diary plays an important role in this recovery process.

The smell diary works as a self-assessment tool used to record results, and to compare improvements to the initial benchmark score. Rasouli said that nearly all program participants have reported improvements in their sense of smell since the beginning of the course, measured through a questionnaire.  

“Our goal essentially is to be able to collect more data and be able to provide people with a benchmark against some of their peers,” said Faraji. “We’re using the feedback from our users to identify areas that can be targeted for future research that would benefit the patient population as well as the ongoing clinical research that’s going into smell training.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated almost 20,000 people are enrolled in Sniffly, when in fact almost 2,000 people are enrolled. The Eye regrets this error.

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