Anxious adults show changes in smell function that are consistent with a durable shift in sensitivity toward particular odorants and away from others. Little is known regarding the development of these changes, including whether they exist in youth, are stable during the transition from childhood to adolescence, and whether odorant properties (e.g. trigeminal features, hedonic valence) affect anxiety-related differences in detection. To address this, we measured smell detection thresholds to phenyl ethyl alanine (PEA), a rose-like odorant with little trigeminal properties, and guaiacol (GUA), a smoke-like odorant with high trigeminal properties. These thresholds were measured at baseline and after an acute stress challenge, the Trier Social Stress Tests, in 131 healthy youth (in 4th, 7th, and 10th grades, age 9–16 years) that reported normal to elevated levels of anxiety. At baseline, high anxious youth exhibited heightened sensitivity to GUA coupled with reduced sensitivity to PEA, as well as a further exaggeration of this bias with acute stress. Importantly, sex, age, and hedonic valence moderated the relationship between trait anxiety and sensitivity to both odorants. Smell function and its aberrations are often overlooked in the literature on biomarkers of stress and anxiety. Taken together with the extant literature, these findings suggest that greater attention is warranted to characterize potential novel olfactory therapeutic targets—across the lifespan.

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