The aim of the present study was to investigate the similarities and differences in the olfactory and visual processing of emotional stimuli in healthy subjects and in patients with major depressive disorder (MDD). Twenty-five inpatients were investigated after admission to the psychiatric clinic. Fifteen of them participated a second time, shortly before their discharge from the hospital. A group of healthy subjects, matched according to age and sex, served as a control. Chemsosensory event-related potentials (CSERPs) were recorded using the constant flow method. In addition, event-related potentials (ERPs), in response to colors and emotional slides, were obtained to control modality and emotion-specific effects. The subjects' task was to discriminate the colors (red/yellow) and odors (phenyl-ethylalcohol = rose/ isobutyraldehyde = rotten butter) according to their quality and to judge the valence of the emotional slides (IAPS slides). The EEG was recorded from 32 scalp locations. At the beginning of the therapy, visual stimulus processing was attenuated in depressive subjects at a relatively late processing level (reduced amplitudes of the P3 and pSW in response to colors and emotional slides), whereas olfactory stimulus processing had already been affected at an early level (reduced amplitudes of the P2 and P3-1 peaks in MDD patients). However, after successful medical treatment, ERPs did not differentiate between depressive patients and healthy controls. We discuss whether functional deviations within the primary olfactory cortex are responsible for the lower olfactory sensitivity, as well as for the altered emotional stimulus processing in MDD patients.
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