Diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease through Smell in its Early Stage

By the help of a Scottish woman who surprised the doctors with her ability to diagnose Parkinson’s disease through smell, researchers found out what actually causes the scent.

According to the researchers in Manchester, they were able to find out the molecules on the skin which are linked with the smell; they further hope that this will help in early detection of Parkinson’s disease. The study was inspired by Joy Milne, a 68-year-old resigned nurse from Perth.

She first saw the “musky” smell on her husband Les, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease after many years. Joy, who has worked with the University of Manchester on the research for three years, has been named in a paper published in the Journal ACS Central Science.

She has also been made a privileged instructor at the university because of her efforts to help locate the significant smell. The research revealed that various compounds, especially hippuric acid, eicosane, and octadecanal, were found in higher than usual concentrations on the skin of Parkinson’s patients.

They are found in sebum which is an oily secretion covering the outer skin, people with Parkinson’s disease produce more sebum than others leading most of them to a skin condition called seborrheic dermatitis.

Lead author Prof Perdita Barran, from the school of chemistry at the University of Manchester, said: “What we found are some compounds that are more present in people who have got Parkinson’s disease and the reason we’ve discovered them is that Joy Milne could smell a difference.

“She could smell people who’ve got Parkinson’s disease. So we designed some experiments to mimic what Joy does, to use a mass spectrometer to do what Joy can do when she smells these things on people with Parkinson’s.”

1 out of 500 individuals in the UK has Parkinson’s and that rises to around one out of 100 among the over-60s. The Parkinson’s disease may cause struggling in various activities like walking, speaking and sleeping.

Currently, there is no such conclusive test for the disease, with clinicians diagnosing patients by observing symptoms.

Prof Barran said she trusted the “volatile biomarkers” they recognized could prompt a simple early identification test for the disease, such as cleaning a person’s neck with a swab and testing for the signature molecules.

She said: “What we might hope is if we can diagnose people earlier, before the motor symptoms come in, that there will be treatments that can prevent the disease from spreading. So that’s really the ultimate ambition.”

Joy’s husband Les, who passed on in 2015, was told he had Parkinson’s at 45 years old yet Joy said she distinguished the unusual musky smell about 10 years sooner. The retired nurse just linked the scent to the disease in the wake of meeting individuals with the same distinctive smell at a Parkinson’s UK support gathering.

She said not knowing Les had Parkinson’s made her family suffer in a “negative spiral”.”What if we did know? It would have changed things dramatically, she said.”

“The fact that he became withdrawn, reserved, he had bouts of depression and mood swings, if I had understood what was happening it would have changed our total outlook on life.”

Adeena Tariq

Adeena's professional life has been mostly in hospital management, while studying international business in college. Of course, she now covers topics for us in health.

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