Alzheimer’s disease is difficult to diagnose before symptoms start showing up, because there is no single test that can definitively determine whether a person has the degenerative brain disease.
Could a scoop of peanut butter and a ruler become that elusive test?
That’s what researchers at the University of Florida’s McKnight Brain Institute Center for Smell and Taste are hoping. They found patients with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease had more difficulty smelling peanut butter held at short distances from their nose than people without the disease.
“At the moment, we can use this test to confirm diagnosis,” graduate student Jennifer Stamps, who led the research, 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.”
About 5.2 million Americans have Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, with about 13.8 million cases expected by 2050. The disease is marked by declines in cognitive function and memory skills, and people aren’t typically diagnosed until they take mental status exams or doctors rule out other diseases that cause dementia-like symptoms.
Stamps was under the tutelage of Dr. Kenneth Heilman, a distinguished professor of neurology, when she noticed his patients had not been tested for their sense of smell. According to the graduate student’s research, the ability to smell is associated with the first cranial nerve — a set of nerves on the brain’s surface — called the “olfactory nerve.” The olfactory nerve is often one of the first things to be affected in cognitive decline, even before memory loss, she pointed out.