The Nose Knows: Detecting Parkinson’s By Smell

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects Dopaminergic neurons, which are nerve cells in the brain responsible for producing dopamine. Dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter and plays a role in sending messages to the substantia nigra area of the brain that controls movement and coordination. When these cells begin to die and dopamine levels decrease, it leads to issues with movement.

The symptoms are slow but progressive and could be different for each person considering the diversity of the effects of the disease. Because of the slow development of symptoms, diagnosis is usually difficult in its early stages, which unfortunately results in more damage to the patients. The symptoms appear when the substantia nigra can no longer produce enough dopamine.

Signs of the disease can be observed through the patient’s tremors, speech, gait, and muscle stiffness. The emergence of these symptoms, particularly the latter, are indicators that the patients are now in the later stages of the disease.

There is currently no known cure for Parkinson’s. Some medications might offer relief or improvement of the symptoms. That’s why researchers and scientists are working with a woman who can detect Parkinson’s by just a whiff.

Introducing Joy Milne

Joy Milne 69, is a resident of Perth, a small town near Edinburgh in Scotland. She worked as a nurse for 27 years. She is now working with scientists and researchers to improve the chances of early diagnosis for people who might be suffering from Parkinson’s.

Joy is one of the few individuals who have an elevated sense of smell, a condition called hyperosmia. She has had this condition since childhood, and she has since been quoted saying that her sense of smell is “somewhere between a person and a dog.” Interestingly enough, her nose also allows her to associate various smells with colors. The medical term synesthesia describes this as the overlapping of one’s sensory perceptions.

The Discovery

Joy had noticed a certain “musky” smell on her husband, Leslie, 12 years before he was even diagnosed with Parkinson’s. When she first noticed this smell, she just shrugged it off and thought of it as a hygiene issue. Her husband, a doctor, was then 44 years old when they finally knew the reason behind the changes in his physiology.

From Leslie’s diagnosis to his death, Joy believed she could smell Parkinson’s, but longer had any doubts about her ability when she attended a public talk on Parkinson’s awareness and research. The talk was led by Tito Kunath from the University of Edinburgh. On that day, Joy was given the chance to tackle the possible correlation between Parkinson’s patients and their smell.

Evidence Behind The Claim

Kunath then contacted his colleague, Perdita Barran to talk about the possibility of this claim. Barran then became the lead author of the study being guided by her expertise in mass spectrometry. She is working with Joy towards developing a non-invasive device for diagnosis, which could detect Parkinson’s in its earlier stages.

The study came to the conclusion that certain odors present on the sebum (oily discretion of the skin), could help them identify and diagnose Parkinson’s. If they can come up with a diagnostic device that can distinguish the difference in a subject’s sebum discretion, this would revolutionize treatments and procedures for Parkinson’s patients. It would also jumpstart the wagon on the diagnosis of different diseases through non-invasive procedures.


The Woman Who Can Smell Parkinson’s