Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis

Definition of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – also referred to as motor neurone disease in some Commonwealth of Nations countries and as Lou Gehrig’s disease in the United States – is a debilitating disease with varied etiology characterized by rapidly progressive weakness, muscle atrophy and fasciculations, muscle spasticity, difficulty speaking (dysarthria), difficulty swallowing (dysphagia), and difficulty breathing (dyspnea). ALS is the most common of the five motor neuron diseases.

Cause of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis 

Genetic factors

There is a known hereditary factor in familial ALS (FALS), where the condition is known to run in families. A defect on chromosome 21, which codes for superoxide dismutase, is associated with approximately 20% of familial cases of ALS, or about 2% of ALS cases overall. This mutation is believed to be transmitted in an autosomal dominant manner, and has over a hundred different forms of mutation. The most common ALS-causing SOD1 mutation in North American patients is A4V, characterized by an exceptionally rapid progression from onset to death. The most common mutation found in Scandinavian countries, D90A, is more slowly progressive than typical ALS and patients with this form of the disease survive for an average of 11 years.

In 2011, a genetic abnormality known as a hexanucleotide repeat was found in a region called C9orf72, which is associated with ALS combined with frontotemporal dementia ALS-FTD, and accounts for some 6% of cases of ALS among white Europeans. The high degree of mutations found in patients that appeared to have “sporadic” disease, (i.e., without a family history) suggests that genetics may play a more significant role than previously thought and that environmental exposures may be less relevant.


The precise cause of ALS is still not known, though a first important step toward determining the cause came in 1993 when scientists discovered that mutations in the gene that produces the Cu/Zn superoxide dismutase (SOD1) enzyme were associated with some cases (approximately 20%) of familial ALS. This enzyme is a powerful antioxidant that protects the body from damage caused by superoxide, a toxic free radical generated in the mitochondria. Free radicals are highly reactive molecules produced by cells during normal metabolism. Free radicals can accumulate and cause damage to both mitochondrial and nuclear DNA and proteins within cells. To date, over 110 different mutations in SOD1 have been linked with the disease, some of which have a very long clinical course (e.g. H46R), while others, such as A4V, being exceptionally aggressive. Evidence suggests that failure of defenses against oxidative stress up-regulates programmed cell death (apoptosis), among many other possible consequences. Although it is not yet clear how the SOD1 gene mutation leads to motor neuron degeneration, researchers have theorized that an accumulation of free radicals may result from the faulty functioning of this gene. Current research, however, indicates that motor neuron death is not likely a result of lost or compromised dismutase activity, suggesting mutant SOD1 induces toxicity in some other way (a gain of function).

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. 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 (most commonly, the G93A mutant), 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. Critics have noted that in humans, SOD1 mutations cause only 2% or so of overall cases and the etiological mechanisms may be distinct from those responsible for the sporadic form of the disease. To date, the ALS-SOD1 mice remain the best model of the disease for preclinical studies but it is hoped that more useful models will be developed.

Other factors

Where no family history of the disease is present – i.e., in around 90% of cases – there is no known cause for ALS. Potential causes for which there is inconclusive evidence includes head trauma, military service, and participation in contact sports. More recently, some research has suggested that there may be a link between ALS and food contaminated by blue-green algae.

Studies also have focused on the role of glutamate in motor neuron degeneration. Glutamate is one of the chemical messengers or neurotransmitters in the brain. Scientists have found that, compared to healthy people, ALS patients have higher levels of glutamate in the serum and spinal fluid. Riluzole is currently the only FDA approved drug for ALS and targets glutamate transporters. It only has a modest effect on survival, however, suggesting that excess glutamate is not the sole cause of the disease.

Certain studies suggested a link between sporadic ALS, specifically in athletes, and a diet enriched with branched-chain amino acids. BCAAs, a common dietary supplement among athletes, cause cell hyper-excitability resembling that usually observed in ALS patients. The proposed underlying mechanism is that cell hyper-excitability results in increased calcium absorption by the cell and thus brings about cell death, specifically of neuronal cells which have particularly low calcium buffering capabilities.

According to Medical News Today, “A group of investigators from the University of British Columbia and the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute have discovered a crucial link between prions and the neurodegenerative disease ALS”
Many other potential causes, including chemical exposure, electromagnetic field exposure, occupation, physical trauma, and electric shock, have been investigated but without consistent findings.

Signs and Symptoms of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis 

The disorder causes muscle weakness and atrophy throughout the body caused by the degeneration of the upper and lower motor neurons. Unable to function, the muscles weaken and atrophy. Individuals affected by the disorder may ultimately lose the ability to initiate and control all voluntary movement, although bladder and bowel sphincters and the muscles responsible for eye movement are usually, but not always, spared until the terminal stages of the disease.

Cognitive function is generally spared for most patients, although some (about 5%) also have frontotemporal dementia. A higher proportion of patients (30–50%) also have more subtle cognitive changes which may go unnoticed, but are revealed by detailed neuropsychological testing. Sensory nerves and the autonomic nervous system are generally unaffected, meaning the majority of people with ALS will maintain hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste.

Initial Symptoms

The earliest symptoms of ALS are typically obvious weakness and/or muscle atrophy. Other presenting symptoms include muscle fasciculation (twitching), cramping, or stiffness of affected muscles; muscle weakness affecting an arm or a leg; and/or slurred and nasal speech. 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 contracting the disease experience “limb onset” ALS, i.e., first symptoms in the arms or legs. Patients with the leg onset form may experience awkwardness when walking or running or notice that they are tripping or stumbling, often with a “dropped foot” which drags gently along the ground. Arm-onset patients may experience difficulty with 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 for a long period of time or for the whole length of the illness; this is known as monomelic amyotrophy.

About 25% of cases are “bulbar onset” ALS. These patients first notice difficulty speaking clearly or swallowing. Speech may become slurred, nasal in character, or quieter. Other symptoms include difficulty swallowing and loss of tongue mobility. A smaller proportion of patients experience “respiratory onset” ALS, where the intercostal muscles that support breathing are affected first. A small proportion of patients may also present with what appears to be frontotemporal dementia, but later progresses to include more typical ALS symptoms.

Over time, 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 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.

Disease Progression and Spread

Although the order and rate of symptoms varies from person to person, eventually most patients are not able to walk, get out of bed on their own, or use their hands and arms. The rate of progression can be measured using an outcome measure called the “ALS Functional Rating Scale (Revised)”, a 12-item instrument administered as a clinical interview or patient-reported questionnaire that produces a score between 48 (normal function) and 0 (severe disability). Though there is a high degree of variability and a small percentage of patients have much slower disease, on average, patients lose about 1 FRS point per month. 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. In limb-onset ALS, symptoms usually spread from the affected limb to the opposite limb before affecting a new body region, whereas in bulbar-onset ALS symptoms typically spread to the arms before the legs.

Disease progression tends to be slower in patients who are younger than 40 at onset, have disease restricted primarily to one limb, and those with primarily upper motor neuron symptoms. Conversely, progression is faster and prognosis poorer in patients with bulbar-onset disease, respiratory-onset disease, and frontotemporal dementia.

Late Stage Disease Symptoms

Difficulty swallowing and chewing make eating normally very difficult and increase the risk of choking or aspirating food into the lungs. In later stages of the disease, aspiration pneumonia and maintaining a healthy weight can become a significant problem and may require insertion of a feeding tube. As the diaphragm and intercostal muscles (rib cage) that support breathing weaken, measures of lung function such as forced vital capacity and inspiratory pressure diminish. In respiratory onset ALS, this may occur before significant limb weakness is apparent. External machines such as bilevel positive pressure ventilation (frequently referred to by the tradename BiPAP) are frequently used to support breathing, first at night, and later during the daytime as well. BiPAP is only a temporary remedy, however, and it is recommended that long before BiPAP stops being effective, patients should decide whether to have a tracheotomy and long term mechanical ventilation. At this point, some patients choose palliative hospice care. Most people with ALS die of respiratory failure or pneumonia.

Although respiratory support can ease problems with breathing and prolong survival, it does not affect the progression of ALS. Most people with ALS die from respiratory failure, usually within three to five years from the onset of symptoms. The median survival time from onset to death is around 39 months, and only 4% survive longer than 10 years. The best-known person with ALS, Stephen Hawking, has lived with the disease for more than 50 years, though his is an unusual case.

Risk Factors for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis 

Heredity. Up to 10 percent of the people who have ALS inherited it from their parents. If you have this type of ALS, your children have a 50-50 chance of developing the disease.

Age. ALS most commonly strikes people between 40 and 60 years of age, but younger and older people can also develop the disease.

Sex. Men are affected slightly more often than women.

Smoking. Smoking cigarettes appears to increase a person’s risk of ALS to almost twice the risk of nonsmokers. The more years spent smoking, the greater the risk. On the other hand, quitting smoking can eventually lower this increased risk to that of a nonsmoker.

Regions. 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 symptoms similar to ALS, parkinsonism, and dementia. Lytico-Bodig disease has been linked to the consumption of cycad seeds and in particular, the chemical found in cycad seeds, β-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA). Two more areas of increased incidence are West Papua and the Kii Peninsula of Japan.

Diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis

No test can provide a definite diagnosis of ALS, although the presence of upper and lower motor neuron signs in a single limb is strongly suggestive. Instead, the diagnosis of ALS is primarily based on the symptoms and signs the physician observes in the patient and a series of tests to rule out other diseases. Physicians obtain the patient’s full medical history and usually conduct a neurologic examination at regular intervals to assess whether symptoms such as muscle weakness, atrophy of muscles, hyperreflexia, and spasticity are getting progressively worse.

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, CIDP, spinal muscular atrophy and spinal and bulbar muscular atrophy (SBMA)can also mimic certain facets of the disease and should be considered by physicians attempting to make a diagnosis.

ALS must be differentiated from the “ALS mimic syndromes” which are unrelated disorders that may have a similar presentation and clinical features to ALS or its variants. 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 specialist neurological opinion, so that alternative diagnoses are clinically ruled out.

However, most cases of ALS are readily diagnosed and the error rate of diagnosis in large ALS clinics is less than 10%. In one study, 190 patients who met the MND / ALS diagnostic criteria, complemented with laboratory research in compliance with both research protocols and regular monitoring. Thirty of these patients (16%) had their diagnosis completely changed, during the clinical observation development period. In the same study, three patients had a false negative diagnoses, myasthenia gravis (MG), an auto-immune disease. MG can mimic ALS and other neurological disorders leading to a delay in diagnosis and treatment.

MG is eminently treatable; ALS is not. Myasthenic syndrome, also known as Lambert-Eaton syndrome (LES), can mimic ALS and its initial presentation can be similar to that of MG.

Current research focuses on abnormalities of neuronal cell metabolism involving glutamate and the role of potential neurotoxins and neurotrophic factors.

Prevention from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis

There is no certain way to prevent ALS but scientists are studying on some drugs and diets.
FDA-approved drugs such as Rilutek and Neurontin are two of the most popular ones. These work by blocking some of the molecules that cause cell death.
Investigators found that participants with diets high in carotene and lutein – commonly present in dark green vegetables – had a decreased risk of ALS.

Treatment of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis

Slowing Progression

Riluzole (Rilutek) is the only treatment that has been found to improve survival but only to a modest extent. It lengthens survival by several months, and may have a greater survival benefit for those with a bulbar onset. It also extends the time before a person needs ventilation support. Riluzole does not reverse the damage already done to motor neurons, and people taking it must be monitored for liver damage (occurring in ~10% of people taking the drug). It is approved by Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and recommended by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE).

Pharmaceutical Treatments

Medical professionals 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, dysphagia, and constipation. Baclofen and diazepam are often prescribed to control the spasticity caused by ALS, and trihexyphenidyl or amitriptyline may be prescribed when ALS patients begin having trouble swallowing their saliva.

Physical, occupational and speech therapy

Physical therapists and occupational therapists play a large role in rehabilitation for individuals with ALS. Specifically, physical and occupational therapists can set goals and promote benefits for individuals with ALS by delaying loss of strength, maintaining endurance, limiting pain, preventing complications, and promoting functional independence.

Occupational therapy and special equipment such as assistive technology can also enhance patients’ independence and safety throughout the course of ALS. Gentle, low-impact aerobic exercise such as performing activities of daily living (ADL’s), 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 and occupational therapists can recommend exercises that provide these benefits without overworking muscles. They can suggest devices such as ramps, braces, walkers, bathroom equipment (shower chairs, toilet risers, etc.) and wheelchairs that help patients remain mobile. Occupational therapists can provide or recommend equipment and adaptations to enable people to retain as much safety and independence in activities of daily living as possible.

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.

Feeding and Nutrition

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. Occupational therapists can assist with recommendations for adaptive equipment to ease the physical task of self-feeding and/or make food choice recommendations that are more conducive to their unique deficits and abilities. 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.

Researchers have stated that “ALS patients have a chronically deficient intake of energy and recommended augmentation of energy intake.” Both animal and human research suggest that ALS patients should be encouraged to consume as many calories as possible and not to restrict their calorie intake.

Breathing Support

When the muscles that assist in breathing weaken, use of ventilatory assistance (intermittent positive pressure ventilation (IPPV), bilevel positive airway pressure (BIPAP), or biphasic cuirass ventilation (BCV)) may be used to aid breathing. 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. BCV has the added advantage of being able to assist in clearing secretions by using high-frequency oscillations followed by several positive expiratory breaths. 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 tracheostomy, 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. Some patients under long-term tracheostomy intermittent positive pressure ventilation with deflated cuffs or cuffless tracheostomy tubes (leak ventilation) are able to speak, provided their bulbar muscles are strong enough. This technique preserves speech in some patients with long-term mechanical ventilation.

Palliative Care

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.