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Diagnosis in the Air

Joy Milne with her late husband Les. Photograph: Joy Milne/PA

One woman’s particular sense of smell has got scientists all over the globe in a bit of a tizzy.

In this case, medical researchers have recognized her superhero-like sixth sense, which actually alerted her that something was wrong with her spouse.

Perth, Scotland resident Joy Milne has a rare condition that gives her an incredibly heightened sense of smell. Now 72, Milne claims that she could detect a difference in her husband’s scent when he turned age 33, a whole 12 years before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.

Parkinson’s Disease slowly damages parts of the brain over many years. To be alerted to early red flags of this disease could be a blessing because, while there is no current cure for Parkinson’s, proactive treatment through medication, therapies, and sometimes surgery can be effective at curbing some of the worst symptoms.

Milne’s keen olfactory observations of her husband earned her distinction as “the woman who can smell Parkinson’s,” and it has attracted the attention of scientists, intrigued by the concept of a human who can sniff out and accurately detect a disease.

While some people are known to have an extra sensitive capacity to smell, as compared to others – a phenomena known as Hyperosmia – this was something completely different.

A team of researchers from the University of Manchester quickly began putting Joy to the test. It started with giving Milne t-shirts worn by people who were diagnosed with the disease, as well as those who did not have Parkinson’s. She correctly identified every single person, both with and without the illness, except one.

She claimed that one of the shirts from someone in the “non-Parkinson’s” group smelled like they had the disease. Eight months later, Milne was ironically proved correct, when that person went for a diagnosis.

What began as an odd observation has now resulted in in-depth research on the chemicals the skin produces in those with Parkinson’s, which has since led to better and more successful screenings for the disease.

This Scot’s capacity for sniffing out Parkinson’s could someday unlock a cure for this insidious disease.

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