A new medical device in development by University of Cincinnati researchers may sniff out olfactory disorders that could be an early warning of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other problems outside the typical sensory loss associated with aging. The Sniff Magnitude Test (SMT), an invention of UC Psychology Professor Robert Frank and Professor Emeritus Robert Gesteland of the UC Department of Cell Biology, is now under further development with the WR Medical Electronics Company in Stillwater, Minn. The company will manufacture and market the test.
|Psychology major Skyler Shollenbarger demonstrates the Sniff Magnitude Test.|
“The whole test is based on the very simple observation that when you sniff and you detect a smell, you take a smaller sniff than if you inhaled and didn’t detect a smell,” Frank explains. “For someone with normal sense of smell, the size of the sniff when detecting an odor is cut in half. For someone who cannot detect odor, the size of the sniff for just air and the size of the sniff for an odor are the same.”
In humans, Frank says the sense of smell is one of our less robust senses. He says it’s more susceptible to harm because there is less neurological machinery in the brain devoted to processing the sense of smell. “So, that’s the reason it might be acting a little bit like the canary in the mineshaft. Because it’s more fragile, when you have insult to the brain, it may be sensitive to loss earlier in the disease process.”
|Robert Gesteland, left, and Robert Frank|
So what does it mean if a child, or someone unlikely to have an age-related disease, flunks the sniff test? “If they fail our test, that’s a pretty good indication that there’s something wrong with their sense of smell. Maybe there’s an obstruction – a deviated septum or polyps,” Frank says. “Perhaps the olfactory nerve has been damaged due to a head injury or a viral infection.”
For those who are proud of their keen sense of smell, this is not a test to tickle their senses. Because the really nasty smells worked best for the Sniff Magnitude Test, Frank says the test subjects get a whiff of three odors: a blend of ripe cheese and rancid meat, a fragrance that combines a burning smell with a skunk-like smell, and amyl acetate, which smells like banana. “You have to get people to really suppress the sniff and that’s why the bad odors work so well,” explains Frank. “To a certain extent, we put the banana smell in there to give them a little break.”
Frank adds that his current research is exploring the patterns of loss of smell that could be an indicator of Alzheimer’s. He says the Sniff Magnitude Test is also getting a look by researchers at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago as part of a major epidemiological study on aging, Alzheimer’s disease and sense of smell.