Woman who can smell Parkinson’s disease helping scientists find a breakthrough

  • Najja Parker, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Dec 18, 2017

Generally, doctors diagnose Parkinson’s disease by administering neurological and physical examinations, but now they may be able to identify it with just a sniff, according to a new report. 

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Researchers from Europe have enlisted the help of Joy Milne, a woman from Australia, who surprised doctors with her ability to detect the disease through smell. 

About a decade before physicians told her husband he had the incurable illness, she often complained about a musky smell. 

"We had a very tumultuous period, when he was about 34 or 35, where I kept saying to him, 'you've not showered. You've not brushed your teeth properly,'” she told BBC. "It was a new smell - I didn't know what it was. I kept on saying to him, and he became quite upset about it. So I just had to be quiet."

After he was diagnosed at 45, they began attending a Parkinson’s U.K. support group, and she noticed the smell again - not just with her spouse but from others at the meetings as well.

She brought this information to scientists at a conference, and they conducted an experiment to test her special skill. They gave her 12 T-shirts to sniff - six worn by people with Parkinson’s disease and six worn by people without it. 

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Milne correctly pointed out the Parkinson’s patients and one from the control group, who was diagnosed with the condition three months later.

"She was telling us that this individual had Parkinson's before he knew, before anybody knew,” coauthor Tilo Kunath of Edinburgh University shared with BBC. "So then I really started to believe her, that she could really detect Parkinson's simply by odour that was transferred on to a shirt that the person with Parkinson's was wearing."

Kunath then called on Perdita Barran, a professor from Manchester University, to carry out another study where they collected samples from patients with Parkinson’s and those without it.

They noticed 10 molecules distinctive to the ailment with a mass spectrometer, which isolates and weighs individual molecules. Now, they are hoping to create the first diagnosis test with their findings.

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"It is very humbling as a mere measurement scientist to have this ability to help find some signature molecules to diagnose Parkinson's,” Barran added. “It wouldn't have happened without Joy.”