Can you sniff out the neurodegenerative disorder that is Parkinson’s?

Can you sniff out the neurodegenerative disorder that is Parkinson’s?
© iStock/brunorbs

Parkinson’s disease is the neurodegenerative disorder that currently has no definitive diagnostic test available – but research suggests Parkinson’s could possibly be detected through smell.

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that leads to progressive brain cell death and extensive loss of motor function. Reported in ACS Central Science, researchers explain that the identification of compounds that make up the signature odour of the neurodegenerative disorder could possibly be identified through smell.

Smelling a neurodegenerative disorder

Ancient physicians used scent as a diagnostic tool, and although olfactory tests are not common in modern medicine, diseases such as diabetes are often associated with a particular smell.

However, when it comes to neurodegenerative disorders, there has been little evidence to tie scent to this. However, Joy Milne, a ‘Super Smeller’ can reportedly distinguish the unique odour of Parkinson’s, where she can detect in subjects’ sebum before clinical symptoms appear.

Sniffing out Parkinson’s

This waxy, lipid-based biofluid moisturises and protects the skin, particularly on the forehead and upper back. Excessive production of the substance is a known symptom of Parkinson’s disease. So here researchers set out to investigate the biomarkers of Parkinson’s Disease from sebum.

Researchers from Manchester’s Institute of Biotechnology, The University of Manchester, UK, wanted to determine what chemicals make up the scent in sebum that Milne is picking up on in Parkinson’s patients so that they can eventually develop a diagnostic test for the disease.

The researchers collected sebum samples using gauze to swab the upper backs of more than 60 subjects, both with and without Parkinson’s.

The signature musk of Parkinson’s

The volatile scent compounds of sebum that could be contributing to a disease-associated smell were extracted and analysed with mass spectrometry. The data revealed the presence of hippuric acid, eicosane and octadecanal, which indicate the altered levels of neurotransmitters discovered in Parkinson’s patients, along with several other biomarkers for the disease.

Milne confirmed the signature musk of Parkinson’s when presented with laboratory-prepared samples containing these compounds in a controlled olfactory environment.

While the researchers acknowledge the limited scope of this study, they say it opens the door to the development of a non-invasive screening test for Parkinson’s, potentially leading to earlier detection or even slowing down Parkinson’s.

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