Parkinson’s Right Under Your Nose

Research at the University of Manchester Reveals Super Smeller to Diagnose Parkinson’s Disease

A fundamental breakthrough in the research on Parkinson’s disease (PD), could enable patients to take a non-invasive test allowing for early diagnosis. Smells are often linked to memories, but what if they could be used to detect diseases? What if one didn’t have to bother with waiting rooms, MRI scans and test tubes but could simply rely on a nose to diagnose, say, cancer?

Joy Milne, a Scottish nurse, discovered she could smell Parkinson’s disease when detecting a change in smell in her husband. This distinctive smell appeared in his early thirties and was accounted for nearly a decade later. It was only after he was diagnosed and they attended a Parkinson’s support group, that the overwhelming musky smell was explained. 

She reached out to scientists at the University of Edinburgh to test her theory. Twelve participants, six diagnosed with PD, the other six healthy, were given identical t-shirts, asked to sleep in them overnight and to return them the following day. Joy Milne correctly diagnosed the six Parkinson’s patients but also detected the smell on a seventh t-shirt. This paritcipant was diagnosed with the disease eight months later. Not only could she smell patients who had the disease, but also individuals not yet diagnosed. Joy’s exceptional sense of smell earnt her the nickname ‘Super Smeller’. 

Brain cells release an important chemical called dopamine. You may know it as the ‘happy hormone’, released when one feels pleasure. Whether you’re talking to a friend, making supper or writing a letter, all of these actions require dopamine. The chemical is used by brain cells to send a message which controls your movements. When the brain doesn’t produce enough of this hormone, you lose control over these movements. This neurological disease is called Parkinson’s. Many questions surround the disease. Researchers still don’t fully understand why nerve cells that produce dopamine deteriorate, why one gets PD or how we can cure it. 

The most recent studies surrounding the subject have been conducted by the University of Manchester. Scientists wanted to pin point the source of the smell to gain a better understanding of the chemistry behind it. 

Ms Milne seemed to think the odour was concentrated around the collar of her husband’s shirts. Gauzes were used to absorb the oil from the participants’ upper back. The chemicals on these gauzes were then heated and turned into gas. As each sample was analysed, the super smeller would indicate if they could detect a musky smell. Simultaneously, the gas sample was analysed by a machine called a mass spectrometer, to understand its chemical composition.

In the samples where the smell was detected, chemists were able to identify key molecules such as hippuric acid, eicosane and octadecanal. These ‘volatile biomarkers’ are contained in sebum. Sebum is an oil, secreted on the upper back and forehead. PD causes an overproduction of this oil, often causing a skin condition known as seborrhea.

This represents fundamental advances in the research on Parkinson’s. As the disease can effect mood, this would give patients years of justified behaviour and a better understanding of the changes they are to expect. 

Although this isn’t a cure, early detection could allow doctors to develop prevention medication. As the disease develops, medication could stop the display of symptoms and provide more time to slow down its progression.


  1. I. Sample, 2019, ”Super-smeller’ helps develop swab test for Parkinson’s disease’, The Guardian, 20th of March
  2. C.M. Lill, C. Klein, in Parkinson’s disease: molecular mechanism underlying pathology, ed. P. Verstreken, Elsevier Science, London, 2017, 1, 1-40. ISBN: 978-0-12-803783-6.
  3. D.K. Trivedi, E. Sinclair, Y. Xu, D. Sarkar, C. Walton-Doyle, C. Liscio, P. Banks, J. Milne, M. Silverdale, T. Kunath, R. Goodacre, P. Barran, ACS Central Science, 2019, 5, 599-606.
  4. A.H. Ravn, J.P. Thyssen, A. Egeberg, Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol, 2017, 10, 87-92. DOI:  10.2147/CCID.S130319.
  5. U. Walter, S. Kleinschmidt, F. Rimmele, C. Wunderlich, I. Gemende, R. Benecke, K. Busse, Journal of Neurology, 2013, 260, 3077-3085.
  6. J. Morgan, The Lancet Neurology, 2016, 15 (2), 138-139.

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