Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)

What is ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) or MND (motor neuron disease)?

ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is pronounced “a-my-o-TROE-fik LAT-ur-ul skluh-ROE-sis”, which is also known as motor neuron disease (MND). ALS is actually a type of motor neuron disease. Some refer to ALS as Lou Gehrig’s disease after a famous American baseball player, Lou Gehrig, was the first to be diagnosed with the condition in the 1930s.

The condition is a progressive and fatal disease affecting the central nervous system and brain. ALS destroys the nerve cells in the body which leads to disability and paralysis in the patient during the late stages of the disease.

Motor neurons are nerve cells that are found in the spinal cord and central nervous system. Each neuron contains a specialised fibre that projects, or rather, communicates to other organs outside of the spinal cord in order to indirectly or directly control muscles and glands. These neurons conduct impulses, simply put, they convey impulses from the central nervous system to a gland, muscle or effector tissue, transmitting signals from the spinal cord to the muscles which aid in coordination and movement, telling the systems in the body how to function. In ALS, these neurons are slowly destroyed which prevents them from working effectively. The slow deterioration of the neurons is known as neurodegeneration.

The motor neurons control vital muscle activities such as:

  • Walking
  • Gripping
  • Speaking
  • Breathing
  • Swallowing

As ALS progresses and destroys motor neurons, resulting in the brain no longer being able to effectively give commands to the body, these functions will become increasingly difficult, and will eventually become impossible to perform over time.  This is why those with late stage ALS usually become paralysed.

It is not yet clear what the exact cause of neurodegeneration is (i.e. ALS does not have a cure). In some of the patients with the condition, roughly 5% have a family history of the disease or a family member with another condition known as frontotemporal dementia, meaning that genes may have a significant role to play. 

Frontotemporal dementia, also known as FTD is a progressive disease that results in damage to the frontal lobes of the brain. The typical symptoms are issues with speech, compulsive behaviour, memory issues and mood changes.

ALS is referred to as a motor neuron disease that is familial. In the majority of inherited cases, faulty genes have previously been identified as being a significant contributing factor to the condition developing.

There is no single diagnostic test or procedure for ALS to be accurately diagnosed. Typically, a nervous system and brain specialist known as a neurologist will conduct the diagnostic process. 

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