Smell Test Device May Sniff Out Health Problems

Olfactory check could spot injury, early Alzheimer's, researchers speculate

WEDNESDAY, April 11, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- A new device to test for loss of smell could help alert doctors to problems ranging from a deviated septum to Alzheimer's disease, say University of Cincinnati researchers who are developing it.

Tests on five different prototypes of the Sniff Magnitude Test are scheduled to begin in the near future. The device would be used primarily by neurologists and otolaryngologists, said co-inventor and psychology professor Robert Frank.

"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. 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 odor are the same," Frank said in a prepared statement.

The sense of smell is more susceptible to harm than other senses, because the brain doesn't devote much "neurological machinery" to it, he noted.

"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," Frank said.

If a person fails the Sniff Magnitude 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. Perhaps the olfactory nerve has been damaged due to a head injury or a viral infection," he said.

The test uses three odors to test a patient's sense of smell: a blend of ripe cheese and rancid meat; a burning smell combined with a skunk-like smell: and a banana-like smell.

Frank is currently exploring the pattern of smell loss that could be an indicator of Alzheimer's disease.

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders has more about smell disorders.

SOURCE: University of Cincinnati, news release, April 2, 2007
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