Researchers in Manchester, England, have teamed up with Joy Milne, a former nurse who has the ability to smell the degenerative neurological disease on patients.
They found that people with Parkinson’s secreted a unique musk compared to those without, according to a study published in the journal ACS Central Science.
There is no specific test to definitively diagnose the disease, which causes tremors, speech changes, rigid muscles and slow movement. It is typically diagnosed by a neurologist.
Milne, from Perth, Scotland, first discovered the fetid phenomenon years before her husband, Les, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1986.
The so-called “super smeller” has said she detected a woody, musky odor on him.
“Joy has an extremely sensitive sense of smell, and this enables her to detect and discriminate odors not normally detected by those of average olfactory ability,” the study noted.
The researchers focused on sebum, a waxy, lipid-based fluid secreted by the skin, mostly in areas like the forehead and upper back. Excessive production of sebum is also one of the known symptoms of Parkinson’s.
The upper backs of 64 people — 43 with Parkinson’s and 21 without — were swabbed and tested. The study found that the sebum found on Parkinson’s patients was made up of hippuric acid, eicosane and octadecanal — causing the distinctive scent.
Milne’s sickness-detecting sense of smell was used to cement the findings. She confirmed the tell-tale odor when given laboratory-prepared samples in a controlled olfactory environment.
Researchers acknowledged the study’s limited scope but say the findings are on the nose.
“Identification and quantification of the compounds that are associated with this distinctive [Parkinson’s disease] odor could enable rapid, early screening of PD as well as provide insights into molecular changes that occur as the disease progresses and enable stratification of the disease in the future,” the study said.
A larger study with “human smellers as well as canine smellers” is planned.
The funky findings could one day lead to earlier detection of Parkinson’s, which affects more than 10 million people worldwide, including actor Michael J. Fox.
The star’s Michael J. Fox Foundation funded the new research, along with Parkinson’s UK.