Humans recognize diseases by smell – they just don’t pay enough attention to them national geographic national

Humans recognize diseases by smell – they just pay too little attention to it

The curious case of a woman who recognizes Parkinson's by smell reminds us that our nose is our first line of defense in the fight against disease.

By the late sixties, researchers were convinced that there was a particular smell associated with schizophrenia – a fatty acid called TMHA. The compound that allegedly smelled like goat was identified and described in the prestigious journal Science. There was even hope that this compound was the cause of schizophrenia, which would open up new treatment options.

But in the years that followed, the results were never confirmed in further experiments. So the TMHA theory disappeared from the table again.

Barran now works at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, where she is trying to identify the smell of Parkinson's using biochemical techniques. She and her colleagues want to develop a smell test for Parkinson's – and one more accurate and practical than Mrs. Letting Milne smell T-shirts.

How do diseases smell?

“The human body produces hundreds of volatile compounds that can affect our own odor. When people suffer from a disease, the composition of this compound can change, affecting our body odor. Cholera: Sweet-smelling feces Pneumonia: Foul breath Phenylketonuria: Musky smell of sweat and urine Arsenic poisoning: Body odor reminiscent of garlic Diabetes: Fruity smell of urine and breath Scurvy: Foul-smelling sweat “

First, the team has to chemically identify the molecules, which looks easy in “CSI” but is much more difficult in the real world. Of the thousands of volatile compounds, many have not been well described to date. Data is often only available in the perfume industry.

Thanks to funding from Parkinson's UK and the Michael J. Fox Foundation has allowed Barran's team to collect more than 800 samples of skin sebum dabbed from the backs of volunteers. In the tests so far, they have discovered various molecules that are increased in people with Parkinson's. Together, these molecules could form a kind of diagnostic fingerprint of the disease.

Next, the team needs to not only confirm that these particular molecules are indeed consistently increased in Parkinson's patients, but also figure out how to detect the odor before the first symptoms appear. Ideally, they might even find out how exactly the disease contributes to the production of these molecules.

Barran is happy to take on the challenge – despite the fact that her own sense of smell was damaged in an accident and she can't detect Parkinson's odor.

“Joy [Milne] has an exceptionally good sense of smell,” says Barran. “But she's not the only person who can smell it. What was special was the persistence with which she was convinced that this could be harnessed.”

The smell of a sick person

This brings us back to the question of what ordinary people can actually smell. Dogs are known to have an excellent sense of smell. Are already being used to detect the smell of cancer. However, research suggests that humans can also detect many smells very well.

Judging from the number of neurons in the human olfactory bulb, where the olfactory nerves terminate, humans are better sniffers than rats and mice, and are about in the middle of the pack in the mammalian class. The biggest obstacle to our ability to smell may simply be that we don't pay enough attention to smells and don't have enough specific words to describe them.

“We're not that good at explaining smells in a reasonable way,” Curtis says. She remembers once using soap she had brought back from India. “The thought 'India' popped into my head before I even realized it was because of the smell.”

Similarly, we may not notice it when we notice a change in the smell of a partner or family member.

However, there is evidence that we are quite good disease sniffers if we really pay attention to this task. In a small double-blind study, the results of which appeared in 2017 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, subjects were able to determine whether a person was sick or healthy. For this, some people in a group were given a toxin that triggered the immune system by mimicking an infection. A few hours later, photos of the “sick” and the healthy were taken and given to the subjects for evaluation along with odor samples.


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