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VCU Researchers Seek COVID 19 Patients Who Suffered a Loss of Smell

two men in suit sitting at a table
Daniel Coehlo, M.D., (left) professor of otolaryngology and director of the VCU Health Cochlear Implant Center, and Richard Costanzo, Ph.D., professor emeritus and research director of the Smell and Taste Disorders Center at VCU Health, have developed a proof of concept for their theories on how to restore smell loss through electrical stimulation. (Photo: Karl Steinbrenner)

CORRECTION: We have corrected the spelling of Dr. Richard Costanzo's name in the automated transcript.

Many people with COVID-19 experience a loss of taste or smell. Researchers at VCU are studying those links and encouraging people to participate in a survey to better understand the connection.

Below is a full transcript of VPM's Charles Fishburne and Richard Costanzo, professor emeritus and research director of the Smell and Taste Disorders Center at VCU Health, discussing the phenomenon. Dr. Costanzo asks that anyone who is interested in participating in the study do so online.

FISHBURNE: Dr. Costanzo, what do you want to learn from this survey of COVID-19 patients,

COSTANZO: We're curious about what the consequences of COVID are. Not only whether people will recover from this and recover their sense of smell if they've lost it. But another unique finding has been that people have found a loss of sense of smell, even before any other symptoms.

FISHBURNE: I hear that people who have lost these senses feel that it's devastating.

COSTANZO: Well, that's true. I mean, if you think about it, if you went around in your daily life and you're sitting down at dinner, and if everything tastes like sawdust, eventually that would get to you and people that lose their sense of smell, lose the enjoyment of going out in the fresh air or smelling flowers or just in actions with their mates and other individuals. Smell plays a very important part in our lives and we don't really pay much attention. But there are a number of people out there. A recent study by NIH showed that about 12% of people have some smell problem. And about 3% of the population in the US has total loss of smell is a surprising number.

FISHBURNE: You have invented a device to apparently duplicate the functions of the olfactory nerves. It's similar to a cochlear implant for hearing?

COSTANZO: That's correct. Together with our cochlear implant expert, Dan Coelho at VCU. We came up with this idea that maybe we can do the same thing that's done for people who lose their hearing. And what that is you bypass by bypassing the damaged nerves and directly stimulating the brain with special patterns of electrical stimulation, one can produce sensations And we're hopeful that we can produce and reproduce, smell sensations, and thus restoring the sense of smell.

FISHBURNE: So you have a sensor, you have a microprocessor, and you have some way to get this connected to the brain.

COSTANZO: Yes, it turns out that science and technology is advancing rapidly. And there are gass sensing technologies that you might not know but are in your car and all over in the environment. Smoke detectors that can pick up gas molecules and sense them. So we're developing an array of these, trying to make a pattern that's unique for different odors, using gas sensors and then having the computer control where in the brain you need to stimulate to generate or restore these particular sensations. Just like in the cochlear, early days of cochlear implants, the first thing that people heard were buzzes and sounds that quite didn't make sense. Now, people can actually have a conversation and understand speech, with these stimulations of the brain directly. It's an amazing change in an improvement in modern technology and brain stimulation.

FISHBURNE: Is this device being manufactured or distributed and in use today are or where are we with it?

COSTANZO: Well, VCU is in the early stages of development, we have received the patent for this. We are now working with an individual who's helping us form a company. And we're getting ready to do some proof of concept clinical trials with some colleagues in Boston at Mass General and Mass Eye and Ear.

FISHBURNE: What is it that we still have to learn about the loss of taste and smell and how can this COVID-19 survey help with that?

COSTANZO: Well, we think that in the past, and most recently, we've seen more and more cases of people coming to us after they've had a viral infection. And they've noticed the loss of smell but when they come to a specialty clinic like ours, it's usually because the loss is permanent. And they're seeking some sort of a treatment. And right now, and those individuals unless they improve on their own, there's nothing we can do.

FISHBURNE: And the COVID-19 people are dealing with something that has never been seen or heard or researched before.

COSTANZO: We don't really know much about viral and anosmia. And so this gives us an opportunity as this passes through the community to measure and scientifically collect data at different time points, and maybe better understand how the virus works. And possibly, that information might be used by molecular biologists to help develop cures or treatments.

FISHBURNE: How do you reach out to people who want to help?

COSTANZO: We're doing it through social media and we have a website that people can go to to participate if they've experienced the loss of smell or they've been diagnosed with COVID we are interested in studying them.

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