Study Reveals How Dogs Sniff Out Diabetes

Assistance dogs can detect low blood sugar levels and notify their diabetic owners of an oncoming hypoglycemia attack.

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Cambridge University has discovered how dogs sniff out diabetes.
Cari Jorgensen

For years, people with diabetes have done finger prick tests to detect their blood sugar levels. If their blood sugar drops suddenly, the diabetic person could have a hypoglycemic attack. Such an attack can involve anything from shakiness and dizziness to passing out and coma.

To prevent an attack due to hypoglycemia (abnormally low blood sugar), some people with diabetes have medical detection dogs. These dogs use their noses to detect when a person’s blood sugar level is low and an attack might be on its way. But how are they doing it? No one had that answer… until now.

In a recent study conducted by Wellcome Trust-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science and the University of Cambridge, Dr. Mark Evans and a team of researchers studied eight females with Type 1 Diabetes. During the study, the women’s blood sugar was lowered under controlled conditions. The women were asked to breathe into a breath bag and the samples were studied. The same was done when blood sugar levels were not in a state of hypoglycemia. Then the breath samples were tested.

The testing revealed that during hypoglycemia, isoprene levels rose. In some cases, isoprene levels doubled. Isoprene, which is a natural and common chemical found in human breath, goes undetected by humans but dogs are sensitive to it, Gizmodo reports. As seen in the video above, which was posted to YouTube by Cambridge University, dogs were also tested. They were shown sniffing breath samples and choosing the one with the increased levels of isoprene.

This diabetic alert dog is detecting which sample has high isoprene levels. Via Cambridge University/YouTube

This diabetic alert dog is detecting which sample has high isoprene levels. Via Cambridge University/YouTube

Though researchers are unclear as to why isoprene increases during hypoglycemia, they believe that this finding could lead to a breath device designed to detect low blood sugar levels rather than the finger prick test, making a diabetic’s life a little less painful. But of course they can still keep the dog.

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