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Brain Sniff Test

May 8, 2007

A simple sniff test may help doctors pick up the scent of debilitating brain diseases.


How the nose knows when the brain’s in pain. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

In the future, neurologists may stockpile canisters of nasty odors, like those of pungent cheese, rotten meat, or skunk. They’d be used to screen for degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. University of Cincinnati psychologist Robert Frank says the sense of smell is often a first casualty of these diseases. So he and biologist Robert Gesteland invented a simple sniff test.

ROBERT FRANK (University of Cincinnati):
And it’s all based on the observation that if you’re sniffing and you don’t encounter a smell, you take bigger sniffs than if you do encounter a smell.

Their device measures the air pressure created by a sniff— and compares how hard a patient sniffs at a strong odor versus an empty canister. If they’re roughly the same, further testing would determine whether it’s a mere nasal problem or an early sign of brain damage. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.