Scientists may have found a novel way to “sniff” out Alzheimer’s in its early stages.
Using a dollop of peanut butter on a ruler and bringing it to patient’s nostrils one at a time, researchers at the University of Florida found that those in early stages of the disease had a significant difference in detecting the nutty odor than those who had other kinds of dementia.
"At the moment, we can use this test to confirm diagnosis," Jennifer Stamps, a graduate student in the UF McKnight Brain Institute Center for Smell and Taste, said in a statement. "But we plan to study patients with mild cognitive impairment to see if this test might be used to predict which patients are going to get Alzheimer's disease."
The study, published in the Journal of the Neurological Sciences, tested an individual’s first cranial nerve – an area of the brain that is the first to be affected by cognitive decline.
The pilot study examined 24 patients who had mild cognitive impairment, which can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease – 10 patients had difficulty detecting the peanut butter smell in their left nostrils while 14 patients did not.
Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative disorder that attacks the brain’s nerve cells leads to significant memory loss, thinking, language skills and behavioral changes. While warning signs can include forgetting recent events, confusion about time and place and changes in mood – it does not present itself the same way in every person making it difficult to diagnosis in its very early stages.
In the study, 14 grams of peanut butter was placed on a ruler that was brought to the patients’ nostrils. The ruler was moved one centimeter at a time closer to each nostril until the patient detected the smell. For the patients who displayed early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, the peanut butter had to be an average of 10 centimeters closer to the left nostril than the right one.
This isn’t the first time that sense of smell has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Previous studies have shown that smell function may be one of the earliest signs of the degenerative disease.
"Deficits in odor detection and discrimination are among the earliest symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, suggesting that the sense of smell can potentially serve as a canary in the coal mine for early diagnosis of the disease," study leader Leonardo Belluscio of the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said in a news release.
Stamps decided to use peanut butter to test for smell sensitivity after shadowing a neurology clinic run by Dr. Kenneth Heilman.
"Dr. Heilman said, 'If you can come up with something quick and inexpensive, we can do it,'" Stamps said, adding that peanut butter is a "pure odorant" that can be bought easily.