The sense of smell is a powerful thing. One sniff of a familiar scent can call up a memory or evoke certain emotions. Which is, on its own, impressive. But one woman’s sense of smell really takes things to a whole new level.
Joy Milne from Scotland had been referred to as a “super smeller” by researchers due to her ability to smell Parkinson’s disease in people, often before they’ve even been formally diagnosed. The 68-year-old was a nurse when she noticed that she could smell a difference in some of her patients. But it wasn’t until she noticed the smell on her husband that she understood what was happening.
She first noticed his scent change when he was nearly 32 years old.
“He was only 31, going on 32, it was that summer,” she said on “Today.” “I thought, well, I’m not going to nag about this.”
At the age of 45, her husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, a disorder of the central nervous system that can impact movement, speech and more. Shortly after his diagnosis, they attended a Parkinson’s support group meeting, and Milne was overwhelmed by the same scent she’d smelled on her patients and her husband.
“I said look, everybody else in that room with Parkinson’s has the same smell as you,” she recalled. “And he just went, ‘What, what on earth are you talking about?’”
Hear her version of the story in this video from the “Today” interview:
Confirming Her ‘Super Smeller’ Status
To be fair, it’s hard to believe that a sense of smell could detect disease, but Milne’s proven to have a very accurate nose. Dr. Perdita Barran, a professor of biotechnology at the University of Manchester, set up a way to put her sense of smell to the test.
“We got some people with Parkinson’s, six people, and we got six people without Parkinson’s and we bought them identical T-shirts and they wore them overnight,” Barran explained to “Today.”
Sure enough, Milne picked out the six patients with Parkinson’s just by smelling their shirts and even noticed the smell on a seventh patient, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s just nine months later.
Thanks to Milne’s impressive abilities, Barran and a team were able to figure out that the scent comes from certain compounds in a person’s sebum, or the oil that’s found on the face and back. Now that they know how to detect and retrieve the sebum that’s causing the “smell of Parkinson’s,” Barran told Discover Magazine that, for the first time, they’re working to train dogs to detect the scent and developing diagnostic tests to identify Parkinson’s earlier.
For now, there’s no cure for Parkinson’s but, according to Mayo Clinic, there are treatment options that include medications and, in some cases, surgery.
While there’s no treatment for an early diagnosis of Parkinson’s at the moment, Barran also pointed out that they’ve never been able to detect it early enough to develop early treatments. Now that it’s becoming possible to do so, there may soon be ways to diagnose and treat Parkinson’s earlier than ever before.
And in case you were wondering, Milne is not alone in her abilities. Barran told Discover Magazine that many people, even a hairdresser, have reached out to her since learning of Milne to say that they have the “super smeller” ability, too.
As far as Milne, she’s been happy to help, and she told “Today” that her husband, who sadly passed away, would be “over the moon” to know that her unique sense of smell led to some medical breakthroughs.