Sniffing out Parkinson's Disease

Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg
September 4, 2008 3:50:04 PM PDT
One million Americans suffer from Parkinson's Disease, and another 50,000 are diagnosed every year. With no cure in sight, the numbers are rising. While we most commonly associate the disease with symptoms like tremors and impaired balance, other non-motor symptoms could provide a crucial early warning. Margie Chamberlain's last birthday was more than a milestone. It was a painful reminder.

"I'm 51, and when my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson's, she was 50 or 51," Chamberlain said. "Nobody should have to go through what my mother went through, and I just hope that I can do something to make a difference."

Now, researchers want to know if a smell test can identify healthy people who are at risk of developing Parkinson's.

People with a normal sense of smell can identify around 35 of the 40 smells correctly. People with Parkinson's, 20 or less.

"The difficulty with identifying odors or smells is a very early manifestation," said Dr. Kapil Sethi, a neurologist at the Medical College of Georgia. "It actually may occur years before they develop Parkinson's Disease."

Dr. Sethi says by the time patients start showing symptoms like tremors, they've already lost more than half the brain cells that are key to motor control.

"I hope and pray I don't have parkinson's disease," Sethi said.

By studying brain scans, smell tests and other early indicators, researchers want to find a way to stop Parkinson's before it starts.

"When we develop drugs or cocktails, combinations of drugs that slow down Parkinson's, then we could intervene before they get Parkinson's," Dr. Sethi said. "So maybe delay it by three or four years. Wouldn't that be wonderful? It would have a huge public health impact."

For Margie, joining the Parkinson's study is a way to honor her mom.

"I love her," she said. "I hope she knows I am doing this for her."

The Parkinson's study is recruiting 15,000 people at 17 sites around the country. Participants must be over 50 and have a mother, father, child or sibling with Parkinson's. For more information on being involved in the study, visit


STORY BY: Medical reporter Dr. Jay Adlersberg


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