There appear to be several causes of ALS. In 1991 a research team led by Teepu Siddique and Robert H. Brown, Jr. located the gene for familial ALS on chromosome 21. A later discovery pinpointed a mutation in the gene that codes for an enzyme, superoxide dismutase (SOD), as responsible for a percentage of familial cases. These defects do not appear to be present in the more common nonfamilial, or "sporadic," form of the disease. In addition to genetic factors, scientists have studied the buildup of the chemical glutamate that occurs in ALS patients. Glutamate normally acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain, with excess amounts being absorbed by the cells. In ALS patients the reabsorption process fails, and the buildup of glutamate selectively destroys motor neurons. Other possible causes of ALS include defects in the gene that makes the neurofilament proteins that support nerve cell axons, and antibodies that interfere with calcium channels in the cells and cause a toxic buildup of calcium in the neurons.
There is no cure for ALS. Devices such as wheelchairs and speech synthesizers can help patients maintain independence. Research into treatment has concentrated on neurotrophic factors (proteins that assist nerve growth and health) and glutamate blockers. Rilutek (formerly Riluzole), the first drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treatment of ALS (1995), adds a few months to the life expectancy of most patients but does not relieve symptoms. Another drug, myotrophin, seemed somewhat promising in early studies (1996), but its effectiveness was not confirmed and it has not been approved. Baseball star Lou Gehrig died of ALS in 1941, bringing it national attention.
Degenerative nervous-system disorder causing muscle wasting and paralysis. The disease usually occurs after age 40, more often in men. Most victims die within two to five years from respiratory muscle atrophy. ALS affects motor neurons; the muscles they control become weak and atrophied, with debility usually beginning in the hands and creeping slowly up to the shoulders. The lower limbs become weak and spastic. Variants include progressive muscular atrophy and progressive bulbar palsy. In 1993 the defective gene that accounts for 5–10percnt of cases was discovered; it produces an ineffective version of an enzyme that neutralizes free radicals, which destroy motor neurons.
Learn more about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Cognitive function is generally spared except in certain situations such as when ALS is associated with frontotemporal dementia. However, there are reports of more subtle cognitive changes of the frontotemporal type in many patients when detailed neuropsychological testing is employed. Sensory nerves and the autonomic nervous system, which controls functions like sweating, generally remain functional.
|1850||English scientist Augustus Waller describes the appearance of shriveled nerve fibers|
|1869||French doctor Jean-Martin Charcot first describes ALS in scientific literature|
|1881||"On Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis" is translated into English and published in a three-volume edition of Lectures on the Diseases of the Nervous System|
|1939||ALS becomes a cause célèbre in the United States when baseball legend Lou Gehrig's career—and, two years later, his life—are ended by the disease.|
|1950s||ALS epidemic occurs among the Chamorro people on Guam|
|1991||Researchers link chromosome 21 to FALS (Familial ALS)|
|1993||SOD1 gene on chromosome 21 found to play a role in some cases of FALS|
|1996||Rilutek becomes the first FDA-approved drug for ALS|
|1998||El Escorial is developed as the standard for confirming ALS|
|2001||Alsin gene on chromosome 2 found to cause ALS2|
"Familial ALS" accounts for approximately 5%–10% of all ALS cases and is caused by genetic factors. Of these, approximately 1 in 10 are linked to a mutation in copper/zinc superoxide dismutase (SOD1), an enzyme responsible for scavenging free radicals. An antisense drug trial is underway using a small interfering RNA molecule (siRNA) that inhibits the production of this mutant SOD1 protein.
Although the incidence of ALS is thought to be regionally uniform, there are three regions in the West Pacific where there has in the past been an elevated occurrence of ALS. This seems to be declining in recent decades. The largest is the area of Guam inhabited by the Chamorro people, who have historically had a high incidence (as much as 143 cases per 100,000 people per year) of a condition called Lytico-Bodig disease which is a combination of ALS, Parkinsonism, and dementia. Two more areas of increased incidence are the Kii peninsula of Japan and West Papua.
Although there have been reports of several "clusters" including three American football players from the San Francisco 49ers, more than fifty soccer players in Italy , three soccer-playing friends in the south of England, and reports of conjugal (husband and wife) cases in the south of France, these are statistically plausible chance events. Although many authors consider ALS to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental risk factors, so far the latter have not been firmly identified, other than a higher risk with increasing age.
Some causative factors have been suggested for the increased incidence in the western Pacific. Prolonged exposure to a dietary neurotoxin called BMAA is one suspected risk factor in Guam; the neurotoxin is a compound found in the seed of the cycad Cycas circinalis, a tropical plant found in Guam, which was used in the human food supply during the 1950s and early 1960s.
The very high incidence of the disease among Italian soccer players (more than five times higher than normally expected) has raised the concern of a possible link between the disease and the use of pesticides on the soccer fields.
According to the ALS Association, military veterans are at an increased risk of contracting ALS. In its report ALS in the Military, the group pointed to an almost 60% greater chance of the disease in military veterans than the general population. For Gulf War veterans, the chance is seen as twice that of veterans not deployed to the Persian Gulf in a joint study by the Veterans Affairs Administration and the DOD.
Dietary intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) has been shown in several studies to decrease the risk of developing ALS
The parts of the body affected by early symptoms of ALS depend on which motor neurons in the body are damaged first. About 75% of people experience "limb onset" ALS. In some of these cases, symptoms initially affect one of the legs, and patients experience awkwardness when walking or running or they notice that they are tripping or stumbling more often. Other limb onset patients first see the effects of the disease on a hand or arm as they experience difficulty with simple tasks requiring manual dexterity such as buttoning a shirt, writing, or turning a key in a lock. Occasionally the symptoms remain confined to one limb; this is known as monomelic amyotrophy.
About 25% of cases are "bulbar onset" ALS. These patients first notice difficulty speaking clearly. Speech becomes garbled and slurred. Nasality and loss of volume are frequently the first symptoms. Difficulty swallowing, and loss of tongue mobility follow. Eventually total loss of speech and the inability to protect the airway when swallowing are experienced.
Regardless of the part of the body first affected by the disease, muscle weakness and atrophy spread to other parts of the body as the disease progresses. Patients experience increasing difficulty moving, swallowing (dysphagia), and speaking or forming words (dysarthria). Symptoms of upper motor neuron involvement include tight and stiff muscles (spasticity) and exaggerated reflexes (hyperreflexia) including an overactive gag reflex. An abnormal reflex commonly called Babinski's sign (the large toe extends upward as the sole of the foot is stimulated) also indicates upper motor neuron damage. Symptoms of lower motor neuron degeneration include muscle weakness and atrophy, muscle cramps, and fleeting twitches of muscles that can be seen under the skin (fasciculations). Around 15–45% of patients experience pseudobulbar affect, also known as "emotional lability", which consists of uncontrollable laughter, crying or smiling, attributable to degeneration of bulbar upper motor neurons resulting in exaggeration of motor expressions of emotion.
To be diagnosed with ALS, patients must have signs and symptoms of both upper and lower motor neuron damage that cannot be attributed to other causes.
As the diaphragm and intercostal muscles (rib cage) weaken, forced vital capacity and inspiratory pressure diminish. In bulbar onset ALS, this may occur before significant limb weakness is apparent. Bilevel positive pressure ventilation (frequently referred to by the tradename BiPAP) is frequently used to support breathing, first at night, and later during the daytime as well. It is recommended that long before BiPAP becomes insufficient, patients (with the eventual help of their families) must decide whether to have a tracheostomy and long term mechanical ventilation. Most patients do not elect this route, and instead choose palliative hospice care at this point. Most people with ALS die of respiratory failure or pneumonia, not the disease itself.
ALS predominantly affects the motor neurons, and in the majority of cases the disease does not impair a patient's mind, personality, intelligence, or memory. Nor does it affect a person's ability to see, smell, taste, hear, or feel touch. Control of eye muscles is the most preserved function, although some patients with an extremely long duration of disease (20+ years) may lose eye control too. Unlike multiple sclerosis, bladder and bowel control are usually preserved in ALS, although as a result of immobility and diet changes, intestinal problems such as constipation can require intensive management.
Because symptoms of ALS can be similar to those of a wide variety of other, more treatable diseases or disorders, appropriate tests must be conducted to exclude the possibility of other conditions. One of these tests is electromyography (EMG), a special recording technique that detects electrical activity in muscles. Certain EMG findings can support the diagnosis of ALS. Another common test measures nerve conduction velocity (NCV). Specific abnormalities in the NCV results may suggest, for example, that the patient has a form of peripheral neuropathy (damage to peripheral nerves) or myopathy (muscle disease) rather than ALS. The physician may order magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a noninvasive procedure that uses a magnetic field and radio waves to take detailed images of the brain and spinal cord. Although these MRI scans are often normal in patients with ALS, they can reveal evidence of other problems that may be causing the symptoms, such as a spinal cord tumor, multiple sclerosis, a herniated disk in the neck, syringomyelia, or cervical spondylosis.
Based on the patient's symptoms and findings from the examination and from these tests, the physician may order tests on blood and urine samples to eliminate the possibility of other diseases as well as routine laboratory tests. In some cases, for example, if a physician suspects that the patient may have a myopathy rather than ALS, a muscle biopsy may be performed.
Infectious diseases such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), human T-cell leukaemia virus (HTLV), Lyme disease, syphilis and tick-borne encephalitis viruses can in some cases cause ALS-like symptoms. Neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis, post-polio syndrome, multifocal motor neuropathy, and spinal muscular atrophy also can mimic certain facets of the disease and should be considered by physicians attempting to make a diagnosis. There have been documented cases of a patient presenting with ALS-like symptoms, having a positive Lyme titer, and responding to antibiotics. Lyme disease is particularly difficult to diagnose.
Because of the prognosis carried by this diagnosis and the variety of diseases or disorders that can resemble ALS in the early stages of the disease, patients should always obtain a second neurological opinion.
A study by researchers from Mount Sinai School of Medicine identified three proteins that are found in significantly lower concentration in the cerebral spinal fluid of patients with ALS than in healthy individuals. This finding was published in the February 2006 issue of Neurology. Evaluating the levels of these three proteins proved 95% accurate for diagnosing ALS. The three protein markers are TTR, cystatin C, and the carboxyl-terminal fragment of neuroendocrine protein 7B2). These are the first biomarkers for this disease and may be first tools for confirming diagnosis of ALS. With current methods, the average time from onset of symptoms to diagnosis is around 12 months. Improved diagnostic markers may provide a means of early diagnosis, allowing patients to receive relief from symptoms years earlier.
Studies involving transgenic mice have yielded several theories about the role of SOD1 in mutant SOD1 familial amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Mice lacking the SOD1 gene entirely do not customarily develop ALS, although they do exhibit an acceleration of age-related muscle atrophy (sarcopenia) and a shortened lifespan (see article on superoxide dismutase). This indicates that the toxic properties of the mutant SOD1 are a result of a gain in function rather than a loss of normal function. In addition, aggregation of proteins has been found to be a common pathological feature of both familial and sporadic ALS (see article on proteopathy). Interestingly, in mutant SOD1 mice, aggregates (misfolded protein accumulations) of mutant SOD1 were found only in diseased tissues, and greater amounts were detected during motor neuron degeneration. It is speculated that aggregate accumulation of mutant SOD1 plays a role in disrupting cellular functions by damaging mitochondria, proteasomes, protein folding chaperones, or other proteins. Any such disruption, if proven, would lend significant credibility to the theory that aggregates are involved in mutant SOD1 toxicity. However, it is important to remember that SOD1 mutations cause only 10% or so of overall cases and the etiological mechanisms may be distinct from those responsible for the sporadic form of the disease. Yet, the ALS-SOD1 mice remain the best model of the disease thus far.
Riluzole is currently the only FDA approved drug for ALS and targets glutamate transporters. Its very modest benefit to patients has bolstered the argument that glutamate is not a primary cause of the disease. The antibiotic ceftriaxone has demonstrated an unexpected effect on glutamate and appears to be a beneficial treatment for ALS in animal models. Ceftriaxone is currently being tested in clinical trials.
Autoimmune responses which occur when the body's immune system attacks normal cells have been suggested as one possible cause for motor neuron degeneration in ALS. Some scientists theorize that antibodies may directly or indirectly impair the function of motor neurons, interfering with the transmission of signals between the brain and muscles. More recent evidence indicates that the nervous system's immune cells, microglia, are heavily involved in the later stages of the disease.
In searching for the cause of ALS, researchers have also studied environmental factors such as exposure to toxic or infectious agents. Other research has examined the possible role of dietary deficiency or trauma. However, as of yet, there is insufficient evidence to implicate these factors as causes of ALS.
Future research may show that many factors, including a genetic predisposition, are involved in the development of ALS.
No cure has yet been found for ALS. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the first drug treatment for the disease: Riluzole (Rilutek). Riluzole is believed to reduce damage to motor neurons by decreasing the release of glutamate. Clinical trials with ALS patients showed that riluzole lengthens survival by several months, and may have a greater survival benefit for those with a bulbar onset. The drug also extends the time before a patient needs ventilation support. Riluzole does not reverse the damage already done to motor neurons, and patients taking the drug must be monitored for liver damage and other possible side effects. However, this first disease-specific therapy offers hope that the progression of ALS may one day be slowed by new medications or combinations of drugs. A small, open-label study recently suggested that the drug lithium which traditionally is used for the treatment of bipolar affective disorder may slow progression in both animal models and the human form of the disease. However, further research is needed to establish whether the effect is real or not.
The tetracycline antibiotic minocycline is also under investigation for the treatment of ALS among other neurological disorders. In rodents with the SOD1 gene mutation that has been associated with ALS, Minocycline was as effective as Riluzole in extending survival, and it delayed the onset of movement problems. It is thought to exert its neuroprotective effects not by affecting glutamate release as with Riluzole, but by inhibiting the release of a mitochondrial protein called cytochrome c into the body of the cell.
Other treatments for ALS are designed to relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life for patients. This supportive care is best provided by multidisciplinary teams of health care professionals such as physicians; pharmacists; physical, occupational, and speech therapists; nutritionists; social workers; and home care and hospice nurses. Working with patients and caregivers, these teams can design an individualized plan of medical and physical therapy and provide special equipment aimed at keeping patients as mobile and comfortable as possible.
Physicians can prescribe medications to help reduce fatigue, ease muscle cramps, control spasticity, and reduce excess saliva and phlegm. Drugs also are available to help patients with pain, depression, sleep disturbances, and constipation. Pharmacists can advise on best use of medications. This is particularly helpful with regards to patients with dysphagia, which many ALS patients experience. They would also monitor a patient's medications to reduce risk of drug interactions.
Physical therapy and special equipment such as assistive technology can enhance patients' independence and safety throughout the course of ALS. Gentle, low-impact aerobic exercise such as walking, swimming, and stationary bicycling can strengthen unaffected muscles, improve cardiovascular health, and help patients fight fatigue and depression. Range of motion and stretching exercises can help prevent painful spasticity and shortening (contracture) of muscles. Physical therapists can recommend exercises that provide these benefits without overworking muscles. Occupational therapists can suggest devices such as ramps, braces, walkers, and wheelchairs that help patients remain mobile.
ALS patients who have difficulty speaking may benefit from working with a speech-language pathologist. These health professionals can teach patients adaptive strategies such as techniques to help them speak louder and more clearly. As ALS progresses, speech-language pathologists can recommend the use of augmentative and alternative communication such as voice amplifiers, speech-generating devices (or voice output communication devices) and/or low tech communication techniques such as alphabet boards or yes/no signals. These methods and devices help patients communicate when they can no longer speak or produce vocal sounds. With the help of occupational Therapists, speech-generating devices can be activated by switches or mouse emulation techniques controlled by small physical movements of, for example, the head, finger or eyes.
Patients and caregivers can learn from speech-language pathologists and nutritionists how to plan and prepare numerous small meals throughout the day that provide enough calories, fiber, and fluid and how to avoid foods that are difficult to swallow. Patients may begin using suction devices to remove excess fluids or saliva and prevent choking. When patients can no longer get enough nourishment from eating, doctors may advise inserting a feeding tube into the stomach. The use of a feeding tube also reduces the risk of choking and pneumonia that can result from inhaling liquids into the lungs. The tube is not painful and does not prevent patients from eating food orally if they wish.
When the muscles that assist in breathing weaken, use of nocturnal ventilatory assistance (intermittent positive pressure ventilation (IPPV) or bilevel positive airway pressure (BIPAP)) may be used to aid breathing during sleep. Such devices artificially inflate the patient's lungs from various external sources that are applied directly to the face or body. When muscles are no longer able to maintain oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, these devices may be used full-time.
Patients may eventually consider forms of mechanical ventilation (respirators) in which a machine inflates and deflates the lungs. To be effective, this may require a tube that passes from the nose or mouth to the windpipe (trachea) and for long-term use, an operation such as a tracheotomy, in which a plastic breathing tube is inserted directly in the patient's windpipe through an opening in the neck. Patients and their families should consider several factors when deciding whether and when to use one of these options. Ventilation devices differ in their effect on the patient's quality of life and in cost. Although ventilation support can ease problems with breathing and prolong survival, it does not affect the progression of ALS. Patients need to be fully informed about these considerations and the long-term effects of life without movement before they make decisions about ventilation support. It must be pointed out that some patients under long-term tracheostomy intermittent positive pressure ventilation with deflated cuffs or cuffless tracheostomy tubes (leak ventilation) are able to speak. This technique preserves speech in some patients with long-term mechanical ventilation.
Social workers and home care and hospice nurses help patients, families, and caregivers with the medical, emotional, and financial challenges of coping with ALS, particularly during the final stages of the disease. Social workers provide support such as assistance in obtaining financial aid, arranging durable power of attorney, preparing a living will, and finding support groups for patients and caregivers. Home nurses are available not only to provide medical care but also to teach caregivers about tasks such as maintaining respirators, giving feedings, and moving patients to avoid painful skin problems and contractures. Home hospice nurses work in consultation with physicians to ensure proper medication, pain control, and other care affecting the quality of life of patients who wish to remain at home. The home hospice team can also counsel patients and caregivers about end-of-life issues.
Both animal and human research suggest calorie restriction (CR) may be contraindicated for those with ALS. Research on a transgenic mouse model of ALS demonstrates that CR may hasten the onset of death in ALS. In that study, Hamadeh et al also note two human studies that they indicate show "low energy intake correlates with death in people with ALS." However, in the first study, Slowie, Paige, and Antel state: "The reduction in energy intake by ALS patients did not correlate with the proximity of death but rather was a consistent aspect of the illness." They go on to conclude: "We conclude that ALS patients have a chronically deficient intake of energy and recommended augmentation of energy intake." (PMID 8604660)
Previously, Pedersen and Mattson also found that in the ALS mouse model, CR "accelerates the clinical course" of the disease and had no benefits. Suggesting that a calorically dense diet may slow ALS, a ketogenic diet in the ALS mouse model has been shown to slow the progress of disease.
The new discovery of RNAi has some promise in treating ALS. In recent studies, RNAi has been used in lab rats to shut off specific genes that lead to ALS. Cytrx Corporation has sponsored ALS research utilizing RNAi gene silencing technology targeted at the mutant SOD1 gene. The mutant SOD1 gene is responsible for causing ALS in a subset of the 10% of all ALS patients who suffer from the familial, or genetic, form of the disease. Cytrx's orally-administered drug Arimoclomol is currently in clinical evaluation as a therapeutic treatment for ALS.
Insulin-like growth factor 1 has also been studied as treatment for ALS. Cephalon and Chiron conducted two pivotal clinical studies of IGF-1 for ALS, and although one study demonstrated efficacy, the second was equivocal, and the product has never been approved by the FDA. In January 2007, the Italian Ministry of Health has requested INSMED corporation's drug, IPLEX, which is a recombinant IGF-1 with Binding Protein 3(IGF1BP3) to be used in a clinical trial for ALS patients in Italy.
Methylcobalamin is being studied in Japan: preliminary results show it significantly lengthens survival time of ALS patients.
Notable people who have died of ALS include:
This article incorporates in public domain text from The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
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