OCT 23, 2015 5:53 AM PDT

A Sniff Test for Parkinson's?

Parkinson’s disease can be devastating. It comes on slowly and sometimes is not even noticed. Many patients attribute the minor stumbles or speech issues to aging. Once the disease is in full bloom however, sufferers have tremors that keep them from doing many of their daily activities and eventually they are unable to walk or talk at all. Diagnosis is made by eliminating other causes since there is no one definitive test that can pinpoint the disease exactly.
A lewy body stain showing Parkinson's Disease

One woman in the UK might accidentally come across a new way to tell if someone has Parkinson’s. Joy Milne’s husband Les had Parkinson’s. He was diagnosed twenty years ago at age 45 and died in June 2015. Joy had a clue something was wrong six years before his diagnosis. She noticed his smell had changed.

In an interview with the BBC Joy said, " "I got an occasional smell. His smell changed and it seemed difficult to describe. It wasn't all of a sudden. It was very subtle - a musky smell.” 
Joy didn’t immediately know that the difference in her husband’s scent signaled Parkinson’s. It only occurred to her after she spent some time at a Parkinson’s UK support group for families and noticed the same odor from the Parkinson’s patients she met. She mentioned it casually to a scientist who gave a presentation at meeting and that is when they decided to look into her ability to smell something in Parkinson’s patients.
 
Dr Tilo Kunath, from the school of biological sciences at Edinburgh University developed a way to Joy’s scent accuracy. Working with a group of 12 subjects, six with Parkinson’s and six without he asked them to wear a t-shirt for a day. The shirts were then collected, bagged and coded based on which group they were in. The shirts were given to Joy in the lab and she was asked to sort which ones came from a Parkinson’s patient and which from a healthy patient.

When Dr. Kunath’s team tested her accuracy they found that she had determined 11 out of the 12 shirts correctly. Joy got all six Parkinson’s patients easily, but insisted that one shirt from a subject in the control group was also from a person with Parkinson’s. While initially that 12th person had not been diagnosed, shortly after the experiment he reported to Dr. Kunath that his doctor had diagnosed him with the disease, bringing Joy’s accuracy to 100%

In a press release from Edinburgh Dr. Kunath said, “Our early results suggest that there may be a distinctive scent that is unique to people with Parkinson’s. If we can identify the molecules responsible for this, it could help us develop ways of detecting and monitoring the condition.” 
 
As a result of the smell experiment with Joy Milne, the charity group Parkinson’s UK will be funding similar research in London, Manchester and Edinburgh to see if more information can be detected on a molecular level in hopes that a definitive way to diagnose patients can be found. Check out the video to learn more about this accidental discovery.
 
About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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