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Woman Who Can Smell Parkinson's Disease Inspires New Study

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A woman from Scotland who can supposedly smell whether a person has Parkinson's disease has prompted a team of researchers to examine if the disease has some altering effect on the skin of the person diagnosed with it.

Joy Milne, a 65-year-old grandmother whose husband died due to Parkinson's this year, is said to have an extraordinary sense of smell that enables her to sense if a person has the disease. Long before her husband was diagnosed with Parkinson's, she said, she had started to notice the smell.

"His smell changed and it seemed difficult to describe. It wasn't all of a sudden. It was very subtle — a musky smell," Joy recalls. She said that she had no idea that the smell hadn't been known before.

Joy once attended a charity event for Parkinson's UK, and that is where she met people with a similar distinct smell, she said. At a lecture, she mentioned her observation to scientists and piqued their curiosity.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh tested how much smell she could detect. The first trial included six people who were diagnosed with Parkinson's and another six who were not. These participants wore a t-shirt for one whole day, and the researchers bagged and coded these shirts.

The result was an accuracy of 11 out of 12 participants.

"She got the six Parkinson's but then she was adamant one of the 'control' subjects had Parkinson's," said Dr. Tilo Kunath, a Parkinson's UK fellow from the university with whom Joy had first communicated her observations.

Kunath said that the participant in the control group who was not diagnosed at the time of the trial had been diagnosed with the disease eight months later, so Joy had actually accurately detected the disease.

Now, researchers from London, Manchester and Edinburgh are planning to conduct a study on 200 people with and without Parkinson's. The new study will be funded by Parkinson's UK.

Researchers said that they are hoping to find the molecule components responsible for the change in odor in the skin of a patient. The change somehow occurs in the sebum, an oily substance secreted by the skin, the researchers said.

In the study, Professor Perdita Barran and her colleagues from the Manchester Institute of Technology will acquire skin swabs from the participants.

They also hope to develop a simple swab test to further help early diagnosis and treatment, especially because the disease is incredibly difficult to diagnose. This could also contribute to the development of drugs that could potentially stop or slow down the disease.

More than 6.3 million people worldwide have Parkinson's disease. In the UK, about 127,000 individuals are afflicted.

In the U.S., about 1 million people are diagnosed with Parkinson's, according to the American Parkinson Disease Association.

Parkinson's disease is a degenerative disorder that develops gradually and affects a person's motor system and central nervous system. People who are diagnosed with the disease experience shaking in the fingers and limbs, rigid muscles, loss of automatic movements, speech and writing changes and slowed movement. There is currently no definitive cure or diagnostic test for Parkinson's.

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