The Woman Who Can Smell Parkinson’s Disease

Video highlights from Brain Surgery Live

Her remarkable ability could change the way we diagnose the condition

With no known cure, crippling symptoms and early detection still proving difficult, Parkinson’s disease is a horrible diagnosis to receive.

One Scottish woman with an extraordinary ability may be able to “smell” the disease, allowing for much earlier detection that previously possible.

Joy Milne first notice the smell coming from her husband, six years before he was ever diagnosed with the disease, but it wasn’t until she volunteered for a Parkinson’s charity that she realized every sufferer she met had the same odour.

When scientists at Edinburgh University heard of Joy’s ability, they decided to conduct an experiment to test her accuracy.

Dr Tilo Kunath, a Parkinson’s UK fellow at the University, tells the BBC, “"The first time we tested Joy we recruited six people with Parkinson's and six without. We had them wear a t-shirt for a day then retrieved the t-shirts, bagged them and coded them.

"Her job was to tell us who had Parkinson's and who didn't. Her accuracy was 11 out of 12. We were quite impressed.”

The one subject she said had the disease, but at the time did not, developed the disease just eight months after the experiment ended.

Scientists believe the secret to Joy’s “powers” is that sebum is chemically altered in Parkinson’s sufferers, producing a chemical smell that can be detected by those with very strong senses of smell.

The hope is to find the specific molecular signature responsible and develop a simple test for its detection.

Parkinson's is a progressive neurological disorder that damages cells in the substantia nigra, which is responsible for risk, movement and reward. The disease causes uncontrollable tremors in sufferers. 

There is currently no cure for Parkinson’s disease – only treatments and procedures to less the disease’s impact and severity.

One such procedure is Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS), an elective procedure in which an opening is made in the skull to access the brain. The brain is operated on while the patient is fully awake and able to speak with the neurosurgeons and neurologists.

Today from 12.00pm AEDT / 2.00pm NZDT National Geographic Channel will air a DBS surgery on live TV, taking viewers into a cutting-edge operating room.

For more on Brain Surgery Live, click here.

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