New Parkinson’s test developed by woman who can ‘smell’ the disease

The test has already been developed by scientists (Peter Byrne/PA) (PA Wire)

The test has already been developed by scientists (Peter Byrne/PA) (PA Wire)

A woman who discovered she can “smell” Parkinson’s has helped scientists develop a test to detect the disease. The 72-year-old from Perth, Scotland, has a rare condition that gives her a heightened sense of smell.

The test was already in development, but scientists later discovered that Joy Milne could smell the disease, marking a breakthrough in Parkinson’s research.

How did Joy Milne realize she could “smell” Parkinson’s?

After Ms Milne’s late husband developed a “different smell” when she was 33, she realized it could be a hint of something more serious. She smelled the odor 12 years before he was diagnosed with the disease.

Her observation piqued the interest of scientists, who decided to research what she could smell and whether this could be used to identify people with the neurological condition.

Years later, scientists at the University of Manchester made a breakthrough by developing a test that can identify people with Parkinson’s disease by running a simple cotton swab across the back of the neck.

What could these insights lead to?

Scientists are still in the early stages of research but are excited at the prospect of the NHS being able to deploy a simple test for the disease.

There is currently no definitive test for Parkinson’s disease that diagnoses based on a patient’s symptoms and medical history.

If the new skin swab is successful outside of laboratory conditions, it could be introduced to achieve faster diagnosis.

Ms Milne said it was “unacceptable” that people with Parkinson’s had such a high level of neurological damage at the time of diagnosis.

“I think it needs to be caught much earlier — just like cancer and diabetes,” she said. “Earlier diagnosis means much more efficient treatment and a better lifestyle for people.”

She added, “It has been found that exercise and dietary changes can make a phenomenal difference.”

Her husband was a former doctor and “determined” to find the right researcher to study the link between smell and Parkinson’s. In 2012 they were looking for Dr. Tilo Kunath at the University of Edinburgh.

Can Joy Milne smell other diseases?

Ms Milne is currently working with scientists around the world to see if she can smell other diseases like cancer and tuberculosis (TB).

“I have to go shopping very early or very late because of people’s perfumes, I can’t go to the chemical aisle in the supermarket, so yeah, a curse at times, but I’ve also been to Tanzania and done research on TB and cancer research in the US only preparatory work,” she says.

“So it’s a curse and an advantage.”

She has also said she can sometimes smell people with Parkinson’s while they are in the supermarket or walking down the street, but medical ethicists have advised her not to tell them.

“What general practitioner would accept a man or woman to come in and say, ‘The woman who smells Parkinson’s told me I had it’? Maybe in the future, but not now.”

What is Parkinson’s?

According to the NHS, Parkinson’s disease is a condition that affects the brain.

Symptoms that develop over time can include tremors, slow movements, and stiffness. It’s caused by a loss of nerve cells in part of the brain, but it’s currently unclear what causes the disease.

Parkinson’s can get worse over time, but treatment for the disease includes therapies to treat movement problems, medications, and sometimes brain surgery.

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