Doctors diagnose Parkinson’s Disease today much the same way they did 200 years ago, by looking at a person’s symptoms. But thanks to a Scottish woman named Joy Milne, who has a super-human sense of smell, one day they may be able to diagnose the disease with a simple skin swab.
Joy Milne, a former nurse, lost her husband, Les, to Parkinson’s earlier this year. He suffered with the illness for 20 years, having been diagnosed at 45. But six years before that, Milne smelled trouble, the BBC reported.
“His smell changed and it seemed difficult to describe. It wasn’t all of a sudden. It was very subtle – a musky smell,” the woman, who reported having an acute sense of smell since she was a teen, recalled.
According to Sky News, Joy had no idea at the time what she was smelling. One day, she and Les joined a Parkinson’s charity and met other people with the disease. Milne walked into a room and thought, “‘Oh the smell is stronger.’ I realized that then other people smelt.”
“It could be strong with somebody, it could be weaker with somebody else, so that in actual fact whether they were controlled, or their disease was getting worse or their actual medication was working, I could actually identify.”
The woman contacted a scientist about this strange and unexpected ability. The first person Joy spoke to was Dr. Tilo Kunath, who studies Parkinson’s at Edinburg University. He put her sense of smell to the test.
The results were remarkable.
The woman was given 12 t-shirts to smell. Six of them had been worn by Parkinson’s sufferers and six without. Joy had to smell each and then determine whether or not they had the Parkinson’s with just a sniff. Researchers found Milne had remarkable accuracy.
“Her accuracy was 11 out of 12. We were quite impressed,” the doctor said.
The results get even better than that. The woman was adamant that the 12th person who doctor’s had determined didn’t have the illness actually did. The man didn’t think he did either. But Joy’s sense of smell was spot on.
“Eight months later he informed me that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. So Joy wasn’t correct for 11 out of 12, she was actually 12 out of 12 correct at that time.”
According to CBS News, about a million Americans currently live with Parkinson’s, as do five million people all over the world. A chronic, degenerative neurological disorder, it’s usually diagnosed in those over 60 and is marked by symptoms of “slowing down and loss of movement, limb stiffness, tremor, difficulty walking, and trouble with balance and swallowing, among other problems.” There is no test or biomarker for Parkinson’s, which means it’s often misdiagnosed.
But, if this one Scottish woman can smell Parkinson’s, it could mean early diagnosis and more effective treatment for sufferers, and that could change lives dramatically, researchers said.
This woman’s ability isn’t magic or a superhero sense of smell. Scientists believe Joy Milne is able to detect, by smell, changes in the skin of people with the disease. They think Parkinson’s actually causes some change in the oily substance that keeps skin soft, called sebum.
Which means that a simple swab of the forehead could find markers of Parkinson’s.
Thanks to Joy Milne, new research is now underway to find the molecules in the skin that may emit this odor in people with the early stages of Parkinson’s. Two hundred people will be involved in the study, which will also include “human detectors” like Milne, who have an acute sense of smell.
“The critical thing with what Joy did is that she noticed this smell change way before any of the motor symptoms or other symptoms associated with Parkinson’s had kicked in,” said Professor Perdita Barran, who is leading this research. “Early diagnosis is key to effective treatment, so that’s going to be really useful for us.”
[Photo by NRT/Shutterstock]