Joy Milner has an unusual gift: she is able to smell Parkinson’s disease long before it is diagnosed in most patients. And scientists are developing a technique based on her sense of smell to see if potential patients of Parkinson’s disease could be detected long before they are diagnosed by medical means.
Milne said she’d always been able to smell what other people cannot perceive. She perceived her husband Les emitting a subtle musky scent for a number of years, and six years later he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Milne later joined the charity Parkinson’s UK and was able to associate the peculiar musky smell with people who have the disease. She told a number of scientists, and they decided to investigate her ability to smell Parkinson’s long before an individual is diagnosed with it.
Based in Perth, 65-year-old Milner was put to the test. Researchers from the University of Edinburgh gave her six shirts belonging to six people with Parkinson’s, and another six shirts belonging to people that do not have the disease. She was to tell who had the disease and who did not by smelling the shirts.
Milner succeeded in identifying 11 out of the 12 participants as having Parkinson’s, and also insisted the 12th person who did not have the disease had it when he actually did not. But eight months later, the person who did not initially have the disease was diagnosed as having it, bringing to 12 the correctness of Milner in identifying all the persons that had it 100%.
Tilo Kunath of Edinburgh University said the incident impressed all his colleagues, and they decided to dig further into investigating the phenomenon – to see if patients of Parkinson’s could be identified by their smell way before they are diagnosed with the condition.
Sponsored by Parkinson’s UK, researchers from Manchester University, Edinburgh University, and the University of London among others took up the project of determining if people with the disease experience any skin changes that produce a particular odor unique to their condition.
They want to identify the molecular signature responsible for this smell and then develop a diagnostic tool or test to identify patients by as simple a method as swabbing.
Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system, and it currently has not cured. It makes patients shake, experience slow movement, have difficulty walking, and also have depression and dementia.