What You Need to Know About Motor Neurone Disease

November 12, 2012

What You Need to Know About Motor Neurone Disease

There are many types of motor neurone disease or MND, but they all produce the same devastating effect – problems controlling voluntary movements like talking, standing up or swallowing. Eventually a patient with MND dies because he or she loses the ability to breathe. There is no cure for any type of motor nerone disease, although patients can live longer with drug treatments.

Motor neurons are specific brain cells that help control actions. Someone with MND gradually sustains more and more damage to these motor neurons until the neurons are wasted away. Depending on the individual, this wasting away can happen very gradually or rapidly.

Famous People with MND

The most famous person in the world suffering from a type of MND is physicist and best-selling author Professor Stephen Hawking. He has lived an unusually long time with this disease. Diagnosed at age 21, he was not expected to see his 25th birthday. In 2012, he celebrated his 70th birthday. His eyes are the only part of his body not paralyzed.

Legendary American baseball player Louis Gehrig (1903 – 1941) also suffered from an MND. He died at the youthful age of 37, soon after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALC. There were no medications available to help slow his disease’s progression. In America, ALC is known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Professor Hawking also suffers from ALC.


Scientists are baffled as to what causes motor neurone disease. The prevailing theory is that the brain produces too much of a particular neurotransmitter called glutamate. Instead of receiving a steady or very slow production of glutamate, the avalanche of glutamate keeps muscles twitching or turns them off altogether.

10% of MND runs in families, but that leaves a baffling 90% who develop it for seemingly no reason. Some people who suffered from diseases such as polio have developed a motor neurone disease, suggesting that if the brain is exposed to a toxin such as an illness, it will begin producing too much glutamate. For an unknown reason, men are more likely to get an MND than women.

Symptoms and Signs

Symptoms of motor neurone disease begin slowly in slight coordination difficulties, such as an inability to completely lift one foot while walking. Muscles become weaker and speech becomes increasingly difficult. Many patients develop uncontrollable twitches or spasms before their muscle groups stop working.

Any disease of the brain produces symptoms seemingly unrelated to muscle control. One unusual but typical symptom is suddenly bursting out into laughter or sobs at completely unpredictable moments. Some patients become especially sensitive in one or more senses. Some other patients seem to loose all of their inhibitions to performing dangerous activities such as having unprotected sex with strangers. Others develop severe cognitive dysfunction and seem to become living zombies.


Although there is no cure for any MND, many types can be slowed down with drugs that halt or reduce the brain’s ability to make glutamate. Patients may be given exercises, special diets and speech therapy to help retain what little muscle control they have. Patients also need medical equipment like a wheelchair or a respirator. Patients become so helpless that they need round the clock nursing care.

But even with the latest drugs, about half of all patients diagnosed with a motor neurone disease will not live any longer than Lou Gehrig did back in 1941. These patients die within one year and two months of their diagnosis. Most patients die within three years of developing their first symptoms. The only notable exception to these grim statistics is for primary lateral sclerosis, where patients can often live for more than 25 years.

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