Researchers Use Peanut Butter to Diagnose Alzheimer's Disease

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Florida researchers have come up with a novel way to help diagnose Alzheimer's disease. They use peanut butter and a ruler.

These unusual tools provide a way for scientists to test subjects for smell sensitivity, according to ScienceDaily. In Alzheimer's patients, one of the first locations in the brain to experience degeneration is the front part of the temporal lobe, which evolved from the olfactory system. It's linked to the ability to create new memories.

University of Florida graduate student Jennifer Stamps noted that the staff did not evaluate the sense of smell of subjects tested at the university's McKnight Brain Institute Center. This sense derives from the first cranial nerve, often one of the first things disturbed during a cognitive decline.

Stamps created a simple peanut butter test used on 68 patients with cognitive impairment, plus 26 control subjects. Findings appeared in the Journal of the Neurological Sciences.

About 5.2 million Americans suffer from this most-common form of dementia, the Alzheimer's Association says. This organization estimates that the disorder will cost the country $203 billion in 2013.

There is no cure for this degenerative illness. Healthcare providers concentrate on trying to slow the rate at which its symptoms progress, according to PubMed Health.

The Florida graduate student came up with the idea of using peanut butter to test the sense of smell because it's easy to access and is a so-called pure odorant that's only detected by the olfactory nerve. She used about a tablespoon -- 14 grams -- of peanut butter and a metric ruler for each subject.

A clinician opened the container of peanut butter once the patient had closed both eyes and mouth and blocked one nostril. As the subject breathed normally, a staff member held the ruler next to the open nostril. While the patient exhaled, the staffer moved the peanut butter along the ruler 1 centimeter each time (2.54 centimeters equal 1 inch) until the subject detected a scent.

The researcher recorded the results, then tested the other nostril after a 90-second break. Scientists were not aware of each subject's specific diagnosis until after testing.

They discovered that with early-stage Alzheimer's patients, there was a significant difference between smell sensation in the two nostrils. These patients required the peanut butter to be on average 10 centimeters closer when using the left nostril than when the right one was open. However, subjects with other types of dementia did not experience this difference.

Stamps indicated that the Florida clinicians currently use the peanut butter test to confirm an Alzheimer's diagnosis. They plan to follow subjects with mild cognitive impairment to learn whether it can predict which ones will develop Alzheimer's. In the meantime, the test is one tool that could prove useful in clinics without the staff and equipment necessary for a specific diagnosis.

Vonda J. Sines has published thousands of print and online health and medical articles. She specializes in diseases and other conditions that affect the quality of life.

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