Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences vol:933 pages:278-90
In this chapter, a learning account is discussed as a potential explanation for the symptoms in multiple chemical sensitivity. Clinical evidence is scarce and anecdotal. A laboratory model provides more convincing results. After a few breathing trials containing CO2-enriched air as an unconditioned stimulus in a compound with harmless odor substances as conditioned stimuli, subjective symptoms are elicited and respiratory behavior is altered by the odors only. Also, mental images can become conditioned stimuli to trigger subjective symptoms. The learning effects cannot be explained by a response bias or by conditioned arousal, and they appear to involve basic associative processes that do not overlap with aware cognition of the relationship between the odors and the CO2 inhalation. Learned symptoms generalize to new odors and they can be eliminated in a Pavlovian extinction procedure. In accordance with clinical findings, neurotic subjects and psychiatric cases are more vulnerable to learning subjective symptoms in response to odors. Consistent with a learning account, cognitive-behavioral treatment techniques appear to produce beneficial results in clinical cases. Several criticisms and unresolved questions regarding the potential role of learning mechanisms are discussed.