Understanding ALS

November 12, 2012

Understanding ALS

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as ALS is a progressive degenerative neurological disorder. It is incurable and normally paralysis and then death occurs within 5 years, but can happen as early as 2 years. In 1941 the famous baseball player Lou Gehrig contracted the disease and his struggle brought the disease into the public eye.

Even today our understanding of the condition is limited. We do know that the nerve cells of the brain and spinal column are those that are affected, they gradually deteriorate leading to muscle wastage. It seems to be only the lower motor neurons which are affected, these are required to control movement of limbs, some aspects of breathing and swallowing.

The disease is not very common, only about 5,000 new cases are diagnosed per year in the United States. Other things we know are that generally it is only seen in people over 40 years old, your senses and thinking processes are not affected by the disease and pain is very rare.

It is also known that there may be genetics at work. Between 5% and 10% of cases are familial ALS. This means that it was inherited and it is thought that a faulty gene stops the body from producing the correct amount of superoxide dismutase. We need this enzyme to help neutralize free radicals, which are capable, at molecular level, of damaging body tissue. Researchers have suggested that the defective enzyme is also a factor in the non inherited type of ALS. They also suggest that environmental toxins may come into play.

There is some evidence that may indicate that that the disease develops after exposure to some as yet unknown trigger. Heavy metals, animal hides or fertilizers have all been suggested but there is no conclusive proof yet. A virus has also been suggested as a possible cause as has some form of severe physical trauma.

There is also a theory that excitotoxicity causes ALS. This is when the nerve cells which control movement are grossly over-stimulated by glutamate, which is a neurotransmitter, causing them to die.

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