Sniffing out Parkinson’s disease


Credit: Pixaby
Credit: Pixaby

A remarkable ability to smell Parkinson’s disease has recently been uncovered by scientists at the University of Edinburgh. Joy Milne, from Perth, first recognised a musky odour on her husband Les. Several years later, Les was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Scientists have since proven that this smell is also detectable on other Parkinson’s patients. Identification of the chemical responsible for the smell could enable earlier diagnosis of this debilitating disease.

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative condition affecting one in 500 people in the UK. Common symptoms include tremor and muscle rigidity. This involuntary control over muscle movement is caused by the loss of nerve cells deep in the brain which leads to the release of a chemical called dopamine.

Dopamine acts as a neurotransmitter by relaying messages from one nerve cell to another. This activity is vital for normal control and planning of body movement. Symptoms typically appear after 50-80% of the cells in a specific brain region, called the substantia nigra, have died.

Current drug treatments are only capable of slowing disease progression. This is not surprising, given we have yet to understand the reason for this nerve cell death.

Scientific testing by the University of Edinburgh has confirmed Milne’s ability to detect Parkinson’s before diagnosis. Dr Tilo Kunath led the study, which asked Milne to identify Parkinson’s sufferers by the smell of 12 shirts, six of which had been worn for a day by known Parkinson’s patients and six which had been worn by a control. Encouragingly, Milne guessed 11 out of the 12 shirts correctly. It later turned out that the one shirt incorrectly identified by Milne was from a Parkinson’s sufferer yet to be diagnosed at the time the study took place.

Scientists are now hoping to identify the chemical released by Parkinson’s sufferers. Although the research is still in its very early days, the chemical change is thought to occur in sebum, an oily substance coating the skin. Secretion from specialized glands found all over the body means non-invasive tests such as skin swabs could provide an earlier diagnosis.

A diagnosis based on the musky odour would enable treatment before symptoms even begin to show. This simple, yet amazing ability to detect Parkinson’s may therefore lead to improved quality of life for sufferers in the future.

Rosie Owens

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