Joy Milne, a 65 year old British woman, whose husband died from Parkinson’s disease in June this year. Mrs. Milne asserted, 6 years before her husband Les was diagnosed, she observed a change in his odor. She says, “His smell changed and it seemed difficult to describe”. She further said, “It wasn’t all of a sudden. It was very subtle – a musky smell.” After the diagnosis she claims that she knew it all along. As reported by the Washington Post, Joy claimed to “always smell things other people couldn’t smell”.
At a gathering for a charity of Parkinson’s, Mrs. Milne sensed the same scent from other individuals who were suffering from the same disease her husband had. She revealed her discovery to scientist and researchers who decided to investigate her theory.
To test Mrs. Milne’s theory, Dr. Tilo Kunath, of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Edinburgh conducted an experiment. He gave shirts to her of six people with the disease, and six people without it. After they had worn the shirts, they were given to Mrs. Milne so she could sniff to confirm whether who really had the disease.
Dr. Kunath explained “we had them wear a t-shirt for a day then retrieved the t-shirts, bagged them and coded them. Her job was to tell us who had Parkinson’s and who didn’t”. Mrs. Milne appropriately recognized 11 out of 12 cases. The one which she identified wrong, she explains had an alarming scent. Her prediction was proved true eight months later. “So Joy wasn’t correct for 11 out of 12, she was actually 12 out of 12 correct at that time,” said Dr. Kunath. “That really impressed us and we had to dig further into this phenomenon.”
Scientists now believe that people with early Parkinson’s experience skin changes which produce certain smell. And a diagnostic test of Parkinson’s would be as simple as a swab of the skin.
Dr. Kunath adds “Our early results suggest that there may be a distinctive scent that is unique to people with Parkinson’s. If we can identify the molecules responsible for this, it could help us develop ways of detecting and monitoring the condition.”
To investigate their theory further, the team is embarking on a new study in which they will recruit around 200 individuals with and without Parkinson’s. These individuals will be requested to fill a short questionnaire and have skin swabs taken. These samples will be then scrutinized by the researchers to detect the molecules in the sebum that may be responsible for a change in the scent among the people with Parkinson’s. According to Dr. Arthur Roach, director of research at Parkinson’s UK, “it’s very early days in the research,” he says, “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.”