They say that a dog is man’s best friend and not just because he or she can retrieve the newspaper and a pair of slippers. New studies are being conducted to determine if dogs might be the best early detectors of Parkinson’s disease by smelling its presence on the skin of a human being. Currently, there is no medical test for Parkinson’s disease. It is diagnosed through the presence of a group of symptoms years after it has started to develop in the body. If dogs can help to diagnose the disease years before symptoms emerge it would be a giant leap of progress for those who may soon require Parkinson’s care.
The studies are being conducted by the research charity Medical Detection Dogs and Manchester University in the UK and are funded by Parkinson’s UK and the Michael J Fox Foundation. Researchers want to determine if dogs can detect Parkinson’s disease on test skin swabs through their sense of smell. Dogs have 300 million smell receptors in their noses and human beings have only five million.
Scientists have known for a while that dogs can smell disease. Medical Detection Dogs1 has published studies showing that dogs can detect cancer in human beings through their sense of smell. The charity provides medical alert assistance dogs that can “detect minute changes in an individual’s personal odor triggered by their disease and alert them to an impending medical event.” Researchers are trying to determine if this olfactory skill will extend to Parkinson’s disease. If it does, dogs may be able to smell a chemical indicator of the disease on the skin of people living with it.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological disease that eventually prevents people from moving and sometimes speaking. According to the National Parkinson’s Foundation2, the disease occurs when “…a person’s brain slowly stops producing a neurotransmitter called dopamine. With less and less dopamine, a person has less and less able to regulate their movements, body, and emotions.”
Parkinson’s disease affects an estimated one million Americans, more than all the people diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS).
- Approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease each year. It’s estimated that many thousands of other cases go undetected.
- The incidence of Parkinson’s increases with age, but an estimated four percent of people with PD are diagnosed before the age of 50.
- Men are one and a half times more likely to have Parkinson’s than women.
The challenge with Parkinson’s disease is that there is no definitive medical test for it. Rather, diagnosis is made after confirmation of a group of neurological motor and non-motor symptoms that have occurred consistently over a period of time. Symptoms can include:
- Shaking and tremors
- Difficulty swallowing
- Stiffness when walking
- Lack of expressions or a “masked” face
- Loss of sense of smell
Currently, there are medications that can treat and slow the symptoms of the disease, but there is no cure. The ability to definitively diagnose the disease would be an important first step to finding effective treatments and eventually a cure. A dog is man’s best friend and hopefully, can step up to help us where our human noses are failing.[1: Medical Detectation Dogs] [2: What is Parkinsons]