Man’s best friend


Recently it has been determined that many people with Parkinson’s have a distinct smell. It is a subtle odour that only some individuals with a very sensitive sense of smell can detect (Click here to read a previous SoPD post on this topic).

This curious discovery has given rise to a number of interesting research programmes which are trying to determine the underlying biology of the odour and how this knowledge could be useful in early detection of the condition and in our understanding of the disease.

In addition, there has been efforts to train dogs to detect the smell of Parkinson’s, and recently I was invited to visit a research centre that is teaching dogs to differentiate between odours, and identify the odour from people with Parkinson’s. It was a wonderful experience.

In today’s post, we will look at what the Medical Detection Dogs does and what implications their research could have for Parkinson’s.


Source: MDD

In my role of Deputy Director at the Cure Parkinson’s Trust I get invited to visit many interesting research efforts associated with Parkinson’s.

But recently there was one visit that I was particularly looking forward to.

A couple of weeks ago I drove up to Milton Keynes here in the UK and visited a charity called Medical Detection Dogs.

What do they do?

Medical Detection Dogs is a UK-based Charity which trains dogs to detect the odour of human disease.

Why dogs?

Quite simply because they have such an amazing sense of smell.

Source: PBS

In her book Inside of a Dog, author Alexandra Horowitz – a dog researcher at Barnard College – noted that while we humans might notice if our cup of coffee has had a teaspoon of sugar in it, a dog has such a keen sense of smell that it can detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water – that is two Olympic-sized pools!

Source: Coral

Dogs possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to human’s paltry six million. And the part of a dog’s brain that is dedicated to analyzing smells is approximately 40 times greater than ours.

Source: PBS

While we live in a world of colour and sight, dogs smell a very different picture.

What sort of diseases can they detect?

The Medical Detection Dogs are trained to detect different types of medical conditions.

Source: MDD

In Milton Keynes, they are training dogs to sniff out different cancers, as well as malaria:


The charity teaches their ‘Bio-Detection Dogs’ to differentiate between odours using samples such as urine, breath and swabs. In the case of Malaria, even socks for individuals carrying the parasite are used to train the dogs.

The samples are placed in individual cups and the dogs quickly move between the cups, sniffing each one, until they find the correct smell.

Source: MDD

The dog is taught to sit beside the cup when it detects the smell of a particular odour:

Source: MDD

Interesting, but what does this have to do with Parkinson’s?

Recently I put up a post on this lady: Joy Milne

Joy Milne (she’s lovely!). Source: Telegraph

She stood up at a Parkinson’s support group and – regardless of potential ridicule – she asked “why do people with Parkinson’s smell different?

What followed is the stuff of legend – I really love this story (Click here to read the SoPD post on it) – and it has given rise to an entirely new area of research for the Parkinson’s community. But importantly, Joy’s actions have led us to appreciate that people with Parkinson’s have a specific smell and this resulted in a project to teach dogs to smell Parkinson’s (funded by Parkinson’s UK and the Michael J Fox Foundation – Click here to read more about this).

Here is a news report highlighting the project:

Sounds like a fascinating project. Where do the dogs go at night time?

Good question.

The charity has a no-kennel policy. That means, all of their bio-detection dogs live in homes with a caring family – volunteer fosterers – and lead normal, happy lives as pet dogs. They are dropped off in the morning and picked up in the evening. And the facilities where they are kept during the day are fabulous – open-space fields surround the Medical Detection Dogs training facility and very attentive, dog-loving researchers inside.

It’s a really sweet deal for the dogs.

And they are very friendly – during my visit, 4 of them were in the meeting room as we were talking science.

So what about the science? What can we do with these dogs?

The researchers at Medical Detection Dogs are very keen to follow up the Parkinson’s research. They obviously need funding to maintain the project, but they are also seeking fresh samples (both PD and non-PD).

Thus, any researchers who are interested in collaborating should contact them.

They are very interested in further analysing different types of Parkinson’s (early vs late onset, GBA-Parkinson’s vs other forms, etc), as well as looking at the prodromal phase of the condition.

What is the prodromal phase?

The ‘prodromal phase’ of the condition is the period of time before diagnosis. It involves some of the very early signs of the Parkinson’s (such as constipation, loss of a sense of smell, and REM sleep disorder – more on this in a moment), and the very first signs of motor/movement problems (a twitching finger, or a dragging leg).

Source: Guidelinesinpractice

The earlier we can tackle Parkinson’s, the better for society in general. That is why a considerable amount of research attention is now being focused on this phase of the condition (with studies like PREDICT-PD and Rapsodi). And the more we can learn about the early stages of Parkinson’s, the more likely we are to identify new biological pathways that can be targeted in future therapies.

So what does it all mean?

Man’s best friends have been helping us for a long time. Firstly with our early hunting and gathering activities, and more recently in more sophisticated ways (such as helping the blind). Their amazing sense of smell is now being explored with regards to Parkinson’s and other medical conditions, and this research will hopefully provide us with interesting insights into not only the biology of these aliments, but also into the early detection of them and their course over time.

It was really an amazing visit to the Medical Detection Dogs facility and I was deeply impressed by the effort and commitment that Claire Guest (CEO) and her team applied to their jobs.

A fantastic charity that deserves more support.


On a personal note – My daughter is a big fan of dogs and she would like a pet sausage dog, which she would call ‘Linguine’. The problem is we live in a small English cottage, and it would not be fair on a dog to be stuck in such cramp quarters all day while the rest of us are at work/school.

We tried to explain this to our little 6 year old, but she got rather upset and stormed off.

Next morning, we found this sitting on the kitchen table:

I kid you not.

I am utterly terrified of what the teenage years will bring if the psychological warfare starts at 6 years of age…


EDITOR’S NOTE  The author of this post is an employee of the Cure Parkinson’s Trust. Neither the trust nor the Medical Detection Dogs charity has not requested the production of this post, but the author considered it interesting and important enough to share with the Parkinson’s community.

The banner for today’s post was sourced from the Standard

7 thoughts on “Man’s best friend

  1. Hi Simon,

    I agree with your statement that “the earlier we can tackle Parkinson’s, the better for society in general”. However, I would like to continue this sentence with the words “… and the worse for the individual PwP.”
    As I already pointed out before in a previous comment, in my opinion, the possible disadvantages of an early diagnosis for PwPs are discussed far too little. For example, if I had received my Parkinson’s diagnosis not in my mid-forties, as I did, but in my mid-twenties, as it might have been possible with today’s knowledge and with the help of a Medical Detection Dog, then the disadvantages for me would have far outweighed the advantages of an early diagnosis. Most likely, I would not have got the job that I still have now, nor the health insurance, nor the disability insurance, nor the long-term care insurance. Problems with finding a partner could also have been possible. I do not see any therapies within reach that could possibly compensate for such disadvantages from the point of view of a PwP. (This distinguishes Parkinson’s from other diseases like many types of cancers and malaria, the dogs are trained to sniff out, too, and which might be cured if detected early.) Many members of my Parkinson’s support group share this opinion.



  2. Despite the fact there are no proven treatments, the list of “neuroprotective” substances such as flavinoids (eg quercetin) that can be consumed as part of a very pleasant diet is growing, Plus if consume b-vitamins etc as tablets.
    And do not forget that exercise is considered “non-futile” in slowing progression. So knowing early on so that you can increase your curry (curcumin, ginger) , coffee, green tea (EGCG)), gin & tonic (quinine) etc consumption, and do vigorous exercise to reduce progression for as long as possible seems useful.

    On a separate note an energetic dog is also very useful in ensuring that you do exercise – and make the movements recommended by physiotherapists. Dogs insist you go out whatever the weather, and you have to pick up balls and bowls and reach up for treats on a top shelf, and you are forever turning to check where the dratted animal has got to! And they improve your mood.


  3. Both my parents had PD and I also have it, so I worry about my kids. I understand your concerns, zz, but it seems terrific to have the option of getting fido feedback if you want to know.
    Thanks, Simon! I admire your ability to withstand the pressures, lol. Maybe you can borrow a dog occasionally: )


  4. I noticed I developed a very strange smell, this was 2 years pre diagnosis. I don’t know if it’s still there, since then I have developed anosmia. The smell was quite distinctive, but not knowing I was going to develop Parkinson’s, I didn’t mention it to anyone. Are women better able to smell it than men perhaps?
    I agree with the first commentator, the later the diagnosis the better, until true neuroprotective agents are found.


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