Vaughan Bell has a terribly interesting review of efforts taken to track down the smell of those with schizophrenia. Sweat sniffers were used to help in the research:
Using gas chromotography they identified the ‘odorous substance’ as trans-3-methyl-2-hexenoic acid, now known as TMHA.
At this point, you may be staring blankly at the screen, batting your eyelids in disinterest at the mention of a seemingly minor chemical associated with the mental illness, but to understand why it got splashed across the scientific equivalent of Vogue magazine you need to understand something about the history, hopes and dreams of psychiatry research.
For a great part of the early 20th century, psychiatry was on the hunt for what was called an ‘endogenous schizotoxin’ – a theorised internal toxin that supposedly triggered the disorder.
A great part of the early scientific interest in psychedelics drew on the same idea as psychiatrists wondered whether reality-bending drugs like LSD and mescaline were affecting the same chemicals, or, in some cases, might actually be the ‘schizotoxins’ themselves.
Nothing definitive ever came from the studies. Bell thinks it was the staff and not the patients who had the weird odor.