Q&A: Does Parkinson’s Smell?

Image courtesy of Newscop.

Currently, no specific diagnostic tests exist for Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative brain disorder. Instead, patients get diagnosed once they start displaying trademark symptoms like tremors, muscle stiffness, and impaired balance. However, thanks to Joy Milne, a Scottish nurse with a hypersensitive nose, this is changing. 

Milne came to the attention of UK scientists in 2015 when she proved her ability to detect people with Parkinson’s by their unique smell. With her help, researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh and Manchester identified specific molecules that cause ‘Parkinson’s smell.’ They identified molecules in the sebum, an oily substance on the skin surface, and found that people with Parkinson’s have altered lipid signatures compared to non-Parkinson’s patients. Using these results, they developed a skin-swab test to detect this lipid signature which analyzes sebum with PS-IM-MS, a type of ion mobility mass spectrometry. This new method reveals specific compounds unique to Parkinson’s sebum samples and identifies lipid classes that are differentially secreted in patients with Parkinson’s.

Scientists are hopeful that this swab test will be a key tool for earlier and faster Parkinson’s diagnosis, leading to more opportunities and options for treatment. Although there are still clinical trials and accuracy assessments required before the tests can be authorized in hospitals, scientists involved claim that the test has a greater than ninety percent accuracy. This ground-breaking technology has inspired other research teams to study the olfactory signature of other diseases, opening a new field of research yet to be explored.