A Smell Test for Parkinson's Could Lead to Earlier Detection

One woman's ability to detect a unique smell on Parkinson's patients inspired a scientific study.

Apr 9, 2019


A Smell Test for Parkinson's Could Lead to Earlier Detection | One woman's ability to detect a unique smell on Parkinson's patients inspired a scientific study.

A Scottish woman with an acute sense of smell that can detect Parkinson's Disease has helped scientists identify what causes the odor. This discovery could lead to early detection of the disease before symptoms even begin.

The study at the University of Manchester was inspired by Joy Milne, a retired nurse from Perth, Scotland. She noticed a musky odor on her husband Les, ten years before he was diagnosed with Parkinson's. Since there is no diagnostic test, people do not know they have this deliberating disease until symptoms occur.

She didn't link the odor to the disease until they went to a Parkinson's UK support group and the distinctive smell was overwhelming. He passed away in 2015, but Milne told the BBC Scotland that not knowing put her family in a "negative spiral." She said, "What if we did know? It would have changed things dramatically."

Milne has worked with the university on the research for three years, and she has been named in the study that was recently published in the journal ACS Central Science. The premise is that while odor was used as a diagnostic tool in ancient times, it is not routinely used in modern times but should be.

The study verified that Milne could smell Parkinson's in skin areas where there is a higher concentration of sebum; the oily secretion that coats everyone's skin. Parkinson's patients produce more sebum than people without the disease and the researcher's set out to find out why.

Lead author Professor Perdita Barran, from the school of chemistry at the University of Manchester, told BBC Scotland: "So we designed some experiments to mimic what Joy does, to use a mass spectrometer to do what Joy can do when she smells these things on people with Parkinson's."

"What we found," Barran said, "are some compounds that are more present in people who have got Parkinson's disease and the reason we've discovered them is because Joy Milne could smell a difference."

The research determined that there were compounds, hippuric acid, eicosane, and octadecanal in higher than usual concentrations in the sebum of people who have Parkinson's. A fourth compound perillic aldehyde had lower levels.

The researchers hope that these volatile biomarkers can lead to a simple and easy to use detection test for the disease by way of a medical swab on the patient's neck.

The next step is to analyze the sebum of more than 1,000 Parkinson's patients and hundreds of healthy people to see how reliable the test is. They will also try to determine if the odor changes as the disease progresses or with different variations of Parkinson's.

Since more than 10 million people have Parkinson's worldwide and that number will go up as more people are living longer. This research can make a big difference in people's lives.

"What we might hope is if we can diagnose people earlier, before the motor symptoms come in, that there will be treatments that can prevent the disease spreading," Barran told the BBC. "So that's really the ultimate ambition."

The research was funded by The Michael J. Fox Foundation and Parkinson’s UK. Last month the foundation announced 127 new grants for Parkinson's research. An early detection tool would be a godsend to halt the progression of the disease. Hopefully, a cure will be found soon.

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Bonnie has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.