Working out what’s incorrect with someone can be a complex challenge for physicians. But what if they could diagnose an illness simply from a person’s fragrance? Well, a woman named Joy Milne has the superpower of smelling out Parkinson’s disease, and it’s helping researchers develop the first-ever diagnostic test.
Caused by a loss of nerve cells in the brain field held liable for dopamine production, Parkinson’s disease can be a crippling situation. It can lead to involuntary tremors, slow movement, and stiff and inflexible muscles. It can also cause a variety of other symptoms, from depression and nervousnes to insomnia and memory loss. At the moment “were not receiving” remedy, and diagnosis is based on comments and observations of symptoms alone.
We first learned that Joy Milne could reek Parkinson’s a few years back. Her husband, Les, had the disease, and she noticed a change in his scent years before his diagnosis. She then joined the charity Parkinson’s UK, simply to discover that other sufferers of the condition shared his unique smell.
She shared her findings with scientists, inspiring researchers at the University of Edinburgh to find out more. They devoted her 12 T-shirts to reek- six had been worn by Parkinson’s sufferers and six worn by controls. She correctly identified the six people who had Parkinson’s, but likewise noticed the aroma on the T-shirt from one of the controls. Amazingly, just a few months later, he too was diagnosed with the disease.
“She was telling us that this individual had Parkinson’s before he knew, before anybody knew, ” Edinburgh University’s Dr Tilo Kunath told BBC News.
“So then I actually 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.”
Scent is produced by chemical molecules, so now scientists from the University of Manchester have been investigating what exact molecules might result in the Parkinson’s “smell”. Using a technique called mass spectrometry, the team have identified 10 molecules that are unique to those suffering from Parkinson’s.
“It is very humbling as a mere measuring scientist to have this ability to help find some signature molecules to diagnose Parkinson’s, ” said research leader Professor Perdita Barran. “It wouldn’t have happened without Joy.”
It’s hoped that this increased knowledge of the individual molecules associated with Parkinson’s will lead to the first-ever diagnostic exam. Thanks to Joy, doctors might be able to identify whether a person has Parkinson’s utilizing mass spectrometry, or dogs could use their powerful noses to sniff out the disease, as they can with cancer.
“For all the serendipity, it was Joy and Les who were absolutely convinced that what she could fragrance would be something that could be used in a clinical context and so now we are beginning to do that, ” said Barran.
Although right now there’s no remedy, used to identify whether someone has Parkinson’s early on could allow for better management of symptoms through drug and physiotherapy, dedicating those living with the disease a better quality of life.
If you’re based in the UK and want to find out more about Joy, The Woman Who Can Smell Parkinson’s is currently available on BBC iPlayer.