Could Unique Smell Pinpoint Parkinson’s?

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on October 22, 2015
From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 22, 2015 -- Scientists are investigating whether it may be possible for doctors to diagnose Parkinson's disease by smell.

Their study stems from the case of 65-year-old Joy Milne, a retired Scottish nurse who claims to have detected the onset of the disease in her husband when his smell changed. Milne has since been dubbed a “super-smeller” by the media after she went on to identify people with Parkinson's by smelling T-shirts they'd slept in.

Although the idea might sound far-fetched, previous research has focused on whether some diseases, like cancer and diabetes, might be detectable by smell.

Testing the 'Super-Smellers'

The study, funded by the charity Parkinson's UK, will focus on changes in the sebum -- an oily substance in the skin -- of people with the condition. The changes seem to result in a unique and subtle odor on the skin noticeable only to people with an acute sense of smell.

Scientists at the Universities of Manchester and Edinburgh have chosen 24 people like Milne for a study into their abilities.

Professor Perdita Barran and her team from the University of Manchester will use state-of-the-art technology to analyze skin swabs taken from people with and without Parkinson's. They'll then extract and identify small molecule components taken from the skin to identify specific signs found in Parkinson's.

They'll also compare the ability of the so-called “super-smellers” to detect this change of smell.

Barran hopes the results of the study might lead to the development of a test that may be able to diagnose Parkinson's in its early stages, "possibly even before physical symptoms occur."

"It’s very early days in the research," says Dr. Arthur Roach, director of research at Parkinson’s UK, "but if it’s proved there is a unique odor associated with Parkinson's, particularly early on in the condition, it could have a huge impact. Not just on early diagnosis, but it would also make it a lot easier to identify people to test drugs that may have the potential to slow, or even stop Parkinson's, something no current drug can achieve."