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Parkinson's disease: The signs and symptoms

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A reduced sense of smell, known as hyposmia, is often an early sign of Parkinson’s. But the condition could be detected by others’ sense of smell, according to one woman. Joy Milne, from Perth, Scotland, has been the subject of studies after suggesting people with Parkinson’s show changes in their scent. Joy met her husband Les Milnes at high school, remembers dancing with him at a party and being struck by his wonderful smell.

She told National Public Radio: “He had a lovely male musk smell. He really did.”

But 10 years into their marriage, cephalexin and cefaclor when Les was 31, he came home from his work as a doctor and Joy noticed he smelled different.

She said: “His lovely male musk smell had got this overpowering sort of nasty yeast smell.”

At first Joy thought it must be something from the hospital where he worked and told him to shower, but that didn’t help.

As weeks and months passed, the smell seemed to grow stronger.

She began nagging him to wash more, but after Les showered the smell still remained.

Years went on and Joy said she began to notice other changes in Les, not just his smell.

“It was his personality, his character. He began to change. He was more moody. He wasn’t as tolerant.”

One night, Joy woke up to Les attacking her – he was clearly having a nightmare.

Worried he had a brain tumour they decided to seek medical attention. That was when Les received his diagnosis: Parkinson’s disease.

After 20 years of Les’s symptoms getting worse, the couple decided to attend a support group for people suffering from Parkinson’s.

Joy recalled: “We were late…a lot of people were there. And I walked into the room and I thought, ‘Smell!’”

She realised other people in the room had the same greasy, musty smell Les had.

After telling her husband about her discovery, the pair decided to contact Tilo Kunath, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh.

As part of Kunath’s study, he asked one group of people who had Parkinson’s and another group of people who didn’t have Parkinson’s to take home white T-shirts, wear them overnight and then return them.

He then gave the T-shirts to Joy to smell. They were all given randomised numbers and put in a box, and then she was asked to take each one out and give it a score.

She was asked whether the person who wore the shirt was at an early stage of Parkinson’s, in a late stage, something in between, or didn’t have the disease at all.

Kunath said: “She was incredibly accurate.” His work was published in March 2019 , listing Joy as a co-author.

More recently, Joy has helped academics at the University of Manchester  develop a test that can identify people with Parkinson’s disease using a simple cotton bud run along the back of the neck.

Though it’s still in the early phases of research, scientists are excited about the prospect of the NHS being able to deploy a simple test for the disease.

There’s currently no definitive test for Parkinson’s disease. Diagnosis is based on a patient’s symptoms and medical history.

According to the NHS, the the three main symptoms of Parkinson’s are:

  • A tremor
  • Slowness of movement
  • Muscles stiffness

If you’re concerned you may have symptoms of the condition, see your GP. 

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