The Alzheimer’s Association, an organization that focuses on Alzheimer’s care, support and research, claims over 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease.
Diagnosing Alzheimer’s requires an extensive medical evaluation, including a medical history, mental status testing, physical and neurological exams, and tests to eliminate other causes of symptoms similar to dementia.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there is no single test that can show whether a person has Alzheimer’s.
But by simply using a dollop of peanut butter and a ruler, Jennifer Stamps, a graduate student in the McKnight Brain Institute Center for Smell and Taste at the University of Florida (see video), may have come up with a unique way to confirm a diagnosis of early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.
Futurity.org features research news from top universities, and points out Jennifer’s idea of using peanut butter to test for smell sensitivity emerged when she was working with Kenneth Heilman, a professor of neurology at the University of Florida.
The sense of smell is associated with the first cranial nerve and in cognitive decline can be one of the first things affected. “Because peanut butter is a ‘pure odorant,’ it is only detected by the olfactory nerve and is easy to access.”
“One of the first places in the brain to degenerate in people with Alzheimer’s disease is the front part of the temporal lobe that evolved from the smell system, and this portion of the brain is involved in forming new memories.”
In a small pilot study published in the Journal of Neurological Sciences, patients were instructed to close their eyes and block one nostril.
A clinician opened a container of peanut butter equivalent to about one tablespoon, and held a ruler next to the open nostril while the patient breathed normally.
The clinician then moved the peanut butter up the ruler one centimeter at a time during the patient’s exhale until the person could detect an odor. The distance was recorded and the procedure repeated on the other nostril after a 90-second delay.
With patients in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, the left nostril did not detect the smell until it was an average of 10 centimeters closer to the nose than the right nostril had made the detection in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
In patients with other kinds of dementia, there was either no differences in odor detection between nostrils or the right nostril was worse at detecting odor than the left one.
Of the 24 patients tested who had mild cognitive impairment, which can sometimes forecast Alzheimer’s disease, about 10 patients showed a left nostril impairment and 14 patients did not, thus, researchers stressed more studies must be conducted to examine the implications.
“At the moment, we can use this test to confirm diagnosis,” Stamps says. “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.”
Hellman added: “We see people with all kinds of memory disorders. Many tests to confirm a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias can be time-consuming, costly or invasive. This can become an important part of the evaluation process.”
Stamps and Heilman said this test could be a great tool for clinics that don’t have access to the personnel or equipment to run other, more elaborate tests required for a specific diagnosis, which can lead to targeted treatment.