Scratch ‘n Sniff

sniff, sniff, sniff by Brooke, Flickr
sniff, sniff, sniff by Brooke, Flickr

A few months ago, I wrote about the loss of my sense of smell (eeeeewww that smell, June 2015) Turns out many people with Parkinson’s find themselves in similar circumstances. That got me a little worried about what large gatherings of olafactory-challenged PD folks might be like for those with anywhere near-normal sense of smell! You know, we may be victimized by missed spots in a hurried shower,  halitosis from inability to floss our molars or, dare i say it, rolled-on deodorant that we couldn’t get to roll on!

Then comes today’s news. Turns out that early research is pointing to the possibility that those with PD can be identified by the scent they emit – pruportedly from the oil on our skin. It seems that this is unique to people with PD. The catch is that there are only a small number of people who can detect this – those with superior smell senses or “supersmellers” Here’s the article that discusses this in more detail ( Alexander Sehmer, The Independent, UK, Oct. 22, 2015).

Smell could hold the key to an early diagnosis for Parkinson’s, scientists hope, after a woman dubbed a “supersmeller” detected the debilitating disease by sniffing T-shirts.

Joy Milne, 65, appears to have the uncanny ability to detect Parkinson’s disease by smell.

During lab tests she was able to identify people with Parkinson’s by smelling T-shirts they had slept in. That has lead researchers from the University of Manchester to undertake a project to identify differences in chemicals on the skin of people with Parkinson’s.

It is believed that Parkinson’s may cause changes to the sebum – an oily substance in the skin – resulting in a unique odour so subtle it can only be detected by “supersmellers” like Mrs Milne.

Speaking to the BBC, Mrs Milne said she first noticed the scent on her husband, Les, who died in June after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

She said: “His smell changed and it seemed difficult to describe. It wasn’t all of a sudden. It was very subtle – a musky smell.”

But she only made the link with Parkinson’s after meeting other sufferers, and happened to mention it to a scientist at a talk, leading to tests which found her sense of smell was accurate.

Now the new study, led by Professor Perdita Barran of the University of Manchester and funded by the charity Parkinson’s UK, hopes to find a link which could lead to earlier diagnosis.

Dr Arthur Roach, director of research at Parkinson’s UK, said: “It’s very early days in the research, but if it’s proved there is a unique odour 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.”

I have no idea how many “Mrs. Milne’s” or “supersmellers” there are in this world who we could mobilize to sniff out all those with PD but I couldn’t help but wonder whether we might employ a whole different beast in this battle. If I’m not mistaken, dogs are known to have a sense of smell thousands of times more sensitive than humans (maybe only hundreds of times more sensitive than Mrs. MIlne’s or other supersmellers). Perhaps there’s’ a whole new market for aide-dogs here? I may be going out on a limb, or even barking up the wrong tree altogether, but for the sake of science, I am wiling to volunteer our dog, Sam. Send me a T-shirt you or a loved one has slept in and I will let Sam loose on it for a little scratch ‘n sniff!*

*diagnosis is open to human interpretation and should therefore be taken with a degree of caution. Furthermore, neither Sam, nor her handlers, accept responsibility for the return, in whole or in part, of t-shirts forwarded for testing purposes (especially if they are really nice ones like Roots or Threadless). Offer void where prohibited.


4 thoughts on “Scratch ‘n Sniff”

  1. Here are my thoughts on SMELLING PARKINSONS … I am interested in taking the concept of training “therapy dogs” that make hospital and nursing home visits to “identify” PwP’s. So your semi-humorous piece about sending in Tee Shirts is not at all as “far fetched” as perhaps some of your readers have concluded.

    Below is a piece that I shared with my Parkinson’s Support Group that takes the whole concept to an additional level.

    In the meantime, If you have a serious interest in training dogs, I am investigating this and looking into how to accomplish the operant conditioning techniques/approach… and would be happy to share information with you. Here is my email to my fellow PwPs:

    You know “we human beings” are so focused on “reality being based on our perceptual capabilities as humans” (which have become more focused on the “visual” representation of reality presented by computers) that we miss other dimensions of perception. Dogs’ acute ability to smell could, I suspect, be harnessed to detect things that we are yet even able to conceive of.

    Beyond pushing back the time when people are initially diagnosed with PD… to determining what drugs will be most effective in medical treatment for which people. What drug regimen is useful in reducing population of Lewy Bodies? (In vivo observation is, obviously, not possible) I suspect there may be all sorts of “smell changes” that occur when people experience different emotions, anticipate different situations or experience hallucinations… that could be detected by dogs. The challenge for us is to conceive of these possibilities and to step further and design Operant Conditioning schemes that would allow dogs to communicate these things to us.

    Dogs can discern the difference between a circle and an elipse and we know what colors they can see. (They didn’t whisper this information in our ears).

    Woof, woof


    P.S. Question: Do dogs with longer noses (more real estate for sensing cells) “smell better” than dogs with flatter faces (compressed noses)? Should we all get a dog and to alert us to meds are about to wear off before they do?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comments and for sharing your perspective. I remember an old saying “many a truth has been told in jest” and that may very well be the case here 🙂 I certainly wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from exploring this further! Thanks Frank!


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