Weird Ways Human Senses Are Used To Diagnose Medical Conditions

Smelling for Parkinson’s? Tasting for diabetes? Across history, doctors have relied on human senses to identify disease.

15.11.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo by Cris Trung on Unsplash
Photo by Cris Trung on Unsplash

We all know how a regular medical consultation goes. You tell a doctor how you feel, they do a few routine tests and this information will lead them to make a diagnosis — it may be the right one, it may not.

But did you know that in the past, the human senses were often employed to inform a medical examination — including smell, touch, hearing, and even taste?

While the medical profession relies less on such senses these days, (we now have cutting-edge technology and scientific knowledge) there still some special cases in which they are being used successfully.

Here are four of the most fascinating.


Diagnosing Parkinson’s through….smell

69-year-old Joy Milne, who lives on Scotland’s east coast, has such a great sense of smell that she can smell coffee before she opens the door to a café. For Joy, people smell like different colours and unpleasant odours make her feel cold.

She can also smell Parkinson’s disease before it’s even detected.

The former nurse tells Der Spiegel that her sense of smell puts her “somewhere between a person and a dog.”

Why Milne has captivated the medical world is because to her, people with cancer smell like mushrooms. People with tuberculosis “like damp cardboard.” People with diabetes like nail polish; Alzheimer’s like rye bread. Parkinson’s, she says, is harder to explain. But people with the disease — which gradually robs people of control of their own body and speech — smell “Seabum musky.”

This ability was developed in her personal life: Milne’s husband and her mother in law, both of whom she cared for, lost their lives to Parkinson’s. She said that as her husband’s disease developed, his ‘smell colour’ changed from deep purple to brown.

Milne co-authored a study in the Journal of the American Chemical Society that proved Parkinson’s has a unique smell. She is now working with a team of researchers in Manchester, on a project called NoseToDiagnose, to see if a machine could be trained to smell in the same way as Milne.


Finding breast cancer through touch

In Colombia, blind women are better than doctors at detecting breast cancer in its early stages.

The Guardian reports that a team of medical tactile examiners in Cali, Colombia, is made up of people with severe visual impairments — and who therefore have a “higher sensitivity in their fingertips.”

The site relays the story of Francia Papamija, a woman who gradually lost her eyesight as a result of a retinal detachment. She now sees about 10 women a day, using her fingertips to check their breasts, neck and underarms for a 45 minute examination.

One doctor suggests that blind women can detect 30% more tissue alterations than doctors, with these alterations being up to half as small as those identified by doctors.

“They [MTEs] have this gift in their fingers, Dr Luis Alberto Olave, the surgeon who coordinates the project, told The Guardian. “If they are trained, their disability can become a talent, a strength, and can be used for helping other people.

“Nodules are the first cancer symptom. The faster we find them, the faster we will have any impact on the projection of the illness, and that may mean saving lives.”


Diagnosing depression by listening

While it may seem obvious — listen carefully to what a person has to say about their mental health, before making a complicated assessment — the story, in this case, is of analysing patient conversations to flag up voice patterns consistent with depression,

Ellipsis Health, a San Francisco-based startup, used machine learning to check through recordings and match voice patterns to those common with depressed people. Their voices often sound flatter, softer and lower, sometimes more strained and breathy, with more starts and stops.

As reported in KQED, the tech could track these ‘para verbal patterns’ to identify depression, even if it’s not the reason why a patient went to see a doctor.

The idea was to get around subjectivity inherent in self-reporting and doctor observations. Some studies show that primary care doctors only correctly identify depression 50% of the time.


Finding diabetes by…tasting patients’ urine

The Conversation relays the story of surgeon Herbert Mayo, who in 1832 wrote that diabetic urine “is almost always of a pale straw or greenish colour. Its smell is commonly faint and peculiar, sometimes resembling sweet whey or milk.”

Mayo also went so far as to taste the urine, saying it was “always decidedly saccharine,” meaning sweet.

To this day, medical websites state that if urine smells sweet, then this is a strong indication of diabetes implying that a taste test would still likely yield an accurate diagnosis.

Luckily for doctors, today’s lab testing means they can avoid having to regularly taste patients’ pee.

The Conversation adds that this isn’t the only time a doctor’s medical curiosity has led them to sample bodily fluid. One of the most famous British surgeons, John Hunter, who worked in the mid 18th Century, said this of the taste of semen: “When held some time in the mouth, it produces a warmth similar to spices, which lasts some time.”

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