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Woman Who Can Smell Parkinson’s Saves Scientists’ Research

Who is the Scot behind the miraculous life-saving nose?

Shutterstock / sruilk

A 72-year-old Scottish woman has now become scientists’ favorite superhero. Her secret power? Her sense of smell.

Years have been spent trying to uncover a safe and reliable way to trace if someone suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a debilitating condition that still lacks a specific test since its causes remain obscure. It is often diagnosed due to the symptoms and medical history of the patient. The three major symptoms often include tremors, slow movement, or muscle stiffness. However, it is hard to detect because each patient’s symptoms vary and can include more or less of these physical inhibitions.

However, Joy Milne, a 72-year-old resident of Perth, Scotland, has recently stunned researchers with her mere ability to smell the condition. Milne first noticed she had an acute sense of smell (in regard to detecting human diseases) when her late husband, Les Milne, started developing a different body odor she was unaccustomed to. Apparently, his change of smell happened when he was 33 years old and he was officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s 12 years later. However, at that point, his brain had already suffered severe deterioration.

Milne described her husband’s mutated scent as being rather musky and significantly altered from his original, normal smell.

Milne has since sparked the interest of many scientists and researchers, still in the process of developing a simple and safe test to detect this neurological condition.

Ever since the University of Manchester was able to develop a test that can detect Parkinson’s in a patient with a cotton bud swab taken from the back of one’s neck. This works because the swab collects various potential molecules that have been closely linked to patients with the disease. Therefore, the swab allows researchers to identify patients if they have enough of these related molecules associated with the diagnostic.

With the success of the swab test, and if it persists outside of the laboratory and under controlled conditions, there could be a much quicker diagnostic success and potentially the ability to start treating patients with Parkinson’s before the condition becomes too severe.

Milne shares her experience, witnessing her late husband’s trouble with it. She claims it is unacceptable that there is such a high level of neurological damage by the time doctors can even notice the disease.

She adds,

I think it has to be detected far earlier – the same as cancer and diabetes, earlier diagnosis means far more efficient treatment and a better lifestyle for people.

It has been found that exercise and change of diet can make a phenomenal difference.

Joy Milne, The Guardian

The potential link between odor and Parkinson’s is already a hopeful step in the right direction to detecting the disease quicker.

Dr. Tilo Kunath of the University of Edinburgh worked closely with Joy Milne in 2012 to better understand her phenomenal sense of smell. With Prof Perdita Barran’s help, the pair pursued research to understand better if the change in scent could be a consequence triggered by the disease itself, altering the chemicals in skin oil.

In an initial trial, Milne was asked to smell a series of worn T-shirts of Parkinson’s patients and healthy individuals. She was able to correctly identify all the T-shirts that belonged to Parkinson’s patients and, in an outstanding show of talent, was also able to identify a T-shirt of a non-Parkinson’s patient who, however, developed the disease merely eight months after the experiment.

Milne has shared her experiences with her extremely sensitive nose.

“I have to go shopping very early or very late because of people’s perfumes, I can’t go into the chemical aisle in the supermarket.”

She claims it is a “curse and a benefit” since she moved to Tanzania to help with tuberculosis and cancer research in the United States of America.

She claims she often smells people with Parkinson’s while running her errands around the town but has been warned by medical ethicists she is not allowed to inform them of their potential condition as it may tamper with the patient’s medical faith in their doctors.

Therefore, there is hope that perhaps scientists and doctors could collaborate to understand what significant chemical is altering the smell of people’s body odor once Parkinson’s has begun to affect their body.

Since then, researchers at the University of Manchester have developed a test that links these changes in chemical molecules in odor to identify Parkinson’s. This test, processed in 2019 and led by Barran, has had successes in labs, but the real test will be to see if they can maintain their success rates even in hospital settings. If so, the NHS and GPs can begin to refer this test to potential Parkinson’s patients and improve their chances of coping with the neurological condition.

Barran says,

At the moment, there are no cures for Parkinson’s but a confirmatory diagnostic would allow thme to get the right treatment and get the drugs that will help to alleviate their symptoms.

Barran, The Guardian

Barran adds,

There would also be non-pharmaceutical interventions, including movement and also nutritional classes, which can really help. And I think most critically, it will allow them to have a confirmed diagnosis to actually know what’s wrong with them.

If there is a high enough success rate of what the lab results have shown in a hospital setting, then the test can be a confirmatory diagnostic used alongside the referral process from a GP to a consultant and more widely dispersed throughout the NHS.

Barran says that circa 18,000 people in Greater Manchester are awaiting a neurological consultation. Such a high number would require at least two years to clear, assuming no new patients join the ranks. The percentage of Parkinson’s confirmations for people awaiting neurological consultations is usually between 10-15%. Having a fool-proof test would allow greater efficiency all-round.

Our test would be able to tell them whether they did or whether they didn’t have Parkinson’s and allow them to be referred to the right specialist. So at the moment, we’re talking about being able to refer people in a timely manner to the right specialism and that will be transformative.


For such a time-sensitive neurological condition, any time saved is precious.

In other tech news, read how this wearable patch is changing the nightlife scene for good.

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