“The environment that we’re raised in trains our brains.” - Dr. Sarah Banks

On May 15, I attended a unique research seminar at the Keep Memory Alive Event Center, led by Dr. Sarah Banks of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, and Jay James, Master Sommelier and Director of Sales & Marketing for Chappellet Winery. Below is a recap of the event and interview.

Banks conducted a study focusing on Master Sommeliers, comparing their olfactory and visual sensory judgments to that of everyday consumers to gain insights into how a brain works. Tests were conducted using white wines Chardonnay, Gewurtztraminer, and “white-wine like” nonwines, created using various substances e.g., grape and lemon juice, vodka, fruit essences.

But why study sommeliers? This study focused on the visual and olfactory cortex in the brain. These connect to the entorhinal cortex and hippocampus, which are very important to memory, and are significant to Alzheimer’s disease research. As Banks said, “the idea that one might have some ability to change these regions for the better, even in adulthood, is really exciting to us!” An olfactometer was used to measure olfactory smell senses, and brain scans were taken while the participants were in an MRI machine diagram shown in Figure 2.

In total, there were 12 Master Sommeliers two candidates, and 11 non-sommeliers. The study only had one female sommelier, Lindsey Whipple, who was a candidate at the time, but passed in May 2014, shortly after the study. Gathering so many Master Sommeliers was challenging, but luckily Banks partnered Master Jay James to consult with and recruit participants. Additionally, Banks had the support of Larry Ruvo, founder of the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, and Senior Managing Director for Southern Wine & Spirits.

It was discovered that sommeliers’ brains operate differently from your average wine consumer. Sommeliers have larger and thicker entorhinal cortexes, as well as thicker insulas. In laymen’s terms, some areas of the brain are more active in sommeliers during smell- and sight-related tasks. Thus, sommeliers “exercise” those parts of their brains more, indicating that brains do have plasticity and can improve. So what does this mean for the medical profession? As interesting as it is to simply study the brains of Master Sommeliers, these differences between sommeliers and non-sommeliers are affected in similar regions as those studied in Alzheimer’s research, which leads one to wonder how we can “exercise” our brains better in order to improve or even prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

Interview Session with Dr. Sarah Banks

How did you come up with the idea?

Both Gabe Leger and I studied olfaction. Many people look at smell and its relation to degenerative diseases, since that sense is one of the first to go. We both had this background research, and we both like wine, so we thought it would be interesting to look at this group and level of expertise. If there was anywhere in the world that we could do this study, it was probably here, with the combination of the Brain Center, the funding, and the number of sommeliers in this city Las Vegas. There was just so much passion and interest in it.

Do you intend to duplicate your study with other fields of F&B like culinary?

I don’t think we will do anything immediately, but if we were to duplicate this study, we might include other groups. It would be interesting to look at chefs and other people who work around food and beverage.

How did you select your subjects?

We initially took people who were Master Sommeliers, and eventually two people who were very close to being Master Sommeliers. For the average consumers, we went through UNLV and recruited participants there, working with Dr. Joel Snyder, a psychology professor there, as well as the two graduate students.

Is this your main focus?

I would love to continue with this research, but right now I’m refocusing my efforts on neurodegenerative diseases. We’ll see how this goes when this paper gets published and what kind of interest we get, and if we get funding to continue this study. I would love to; I think that we have the support of the sommelier community to continue this study. It’s fun and it’s interesting!

Until next time, Cheers~!