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There are plenty of online articles claiming that a woman called Joy Milne is able to tell whether someone has Parkinson disease by smell:

  1. A British woman who can smell Parkinson’s disease has helped scientists discover 10 molecules linked to the condition which could lead to the first diagnostic test.

    Researchers at Manchester University first began to believe Parkinson’s might have a discernible odour when Joy Milne of Perth, Scotland, claimed she detected a change in the odour of her husband Les six years before he was diagnosed with the condition.

    Mrs Milne, 67, claimed her husband’s smell changed subtly years before any difficulty with movement started to emerge. Mr Milne died in 2015 aged 65.

    When researchers conducted tests with Mrs Milne they found she was able to identify people living with Parkinson’s from people without the condition by smelling skin swabs taken from both groups.

    -"Woman who can smell Parkinson's disease helps scientists develop first diagnostic test", The Telegraph (2017-12-18)

  2. "Meet the woman who can smell Parkinson's disease", The Telegraph (2017-12-19)

  3. "This Woman Can Smell Parkinson's Disease", Independent (2017-12-18)

Questions:

  1. Is it true?

  2. Is there any evidence suggesting that Joy Milne can smell Parkinson's disease?

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tl;dr Maybe.

Yes, there is a woman who claims she can smell Parkinson's and yes, in a pilot study her abilities convinced scientists who started further research. However, from the (so far) available data it is hard to tell, whether she really has the abilities or not.


Very interesting topic, but not easy to answer.

Here are my current findings.

The Telegraph article you have quoted, mentions two scientists. Both of them exist at the Universities given in the article.

  • Prof Perdita Barran, chair of Mass Spectrometry in the School of Chemistry at Manchester University (link)
  • Dr Tilo Kunath Edinburgh University, Centre for Regenerative Medicine (link)

On their University-websites there is a press release and links to out-of-university media articles that cover the story you have quoted. The above linked press release from the University of Edinburgh in Oct 2015 says:

[...] led to a small pilot study with Prof Perdita Barran's group from Manchester University where the woman correctly identified which people from a group of 24 had Parkinson’s. She did so by smelling T-shirts that they had worn for a day.

However, this BBC-article was linked on the Manchester University website and says

Joy was given 12 unmarked T-shirts to smell - six worn by Parkinson's patients and six worn by volunteers without the disease.

She correctly identified the six worn by Parkinson's patients, but could also smell the odour on a T-shirt worn by someone in the control group without Parkinson's.

Joy was told three months later that this person had in fact been diagnosed with Parkinson's after the T-shirt tests.

So, there is a little discrepancy in the sample size of the pilot study (which could be a missapprehension by a reporter - 12 in total vs 12 per group).

The above linked BBC article also mentions that the success of the pilot study led to further investigation:

The samples were put through a mass spectrometer [...]. The first set of results indicated there were 10 molecules distinctive to Parkinson's sufferers.

It seems, Prof Barran also works on training dogs to sniff that odour.

Unfortunately, I did not find a peer reviewed article, neither on the pilot nor on the follow-up studies. Maybe this work is still in progress or under review and not published yet. This makes it hard to tell, how exactly the pilot was performed and if there had been the opportunity for Joy Milne to cheat. Sadly, no final conclusion here (yet).

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