Researchers in Manchester and Edinburgh are developing a test for Parkinson’s based on certain odours after working with a woman who can smell the condition before the clinical symptoms appear.

Joy Milne, a former nurse first noticed her husband's 'musky' scent some 12 years before he was diagnosed. Now, with Joy's help, researchers have been able to isolate several substances in the skin which signal Parkinson's which could help clinicians diagnose the condition earlier, potentially allowing drugs to target and treat the condition, protecting brain cells before they begin to die.

Joy only realised her unusual ability when she attended a patient support group with her husband and found everyone in the room smelled the same. After mentioning this to Dr Tilo Kunath, a neurobiologist who studies Parkinson’s at Edinburgh University, together they began to investigate the aromatic compounds found in the skin.

Researchers were able to identify the neck and back area where the scent was strongest - sebaceous glands are in abundance here secreting the oily substance called sebum. Over production of sebum has long been documented, but largely ignored, as a classic sign of Parkinson's.

Other studies have also found that alpha-synuclein, the toxic protein present in the brains of people with Parkinson’s, is also present on the skin and may it is thought also change the scent of the skin. Dr Simon Stott, Deputy Director of Research, The Cure Parkinson's Trust said,

"This is a fantastic example of a piece of research that was initiated by a member of the community - Joy Milne - bravely asking a question at a support group meeting, and a researcher - Dr Tilo Kunath - following up on it. It is a truly inspirational and remarkable story."

Dr Kunath said,

"This is a really exciting step towards a test for Parkinson’s that could cut short the time it currently takes to reach a diagnosis. Efforts towards a conclusive test would have a huge impact, not only for patients, but could also aid research for new treatments."

 Read the full press release.

Further reading -

Read Dr Simon Stott's blog - 'The Joy of discovery: On the smell of Parkinson’s'

Poster presentation: A unique Parkinson’s odour? A hypothesis linking increased sebum production and α-synuclein skin pathology

ACS Central Science - 'Discovery of Volatile Biomarkers of Parkinson’s Disease from Sebum'