Neurologists do not break into a sweat when they make the diagnosis of essential tremor (ET). Theoretically, at least, they shouldn’t. Essential tremor presents with an obvious shaking of the hands when performing tasks; this is unlike the tremor of Parkinson’s disease which is typically at rest. Neurologists also have handy evidence-based treatment guidelines which recommend medications such as Propranolol and Primidone.
Essential tremor is however anything but straightforward. Tremor is a feature of many other medical and neurological diseases. Neurologists also know that essential tremor may mimic Parkinson’s disease and dystonic tremor. To muddy the waters further, essential tremor also has non-motor symptoms such as cognitive difficulties. And to add to the frustration, the touted evidence-based treatments, when tolerated, rarely work well enough. These twists and turns that accompany essential tremor are the reasons a review article in Practical Neurology labelled it ‘deceptively simple‘. This deception extends to the core puzzle in essential tremor-what causes it? Here are two tantalising suggestions which attempt to answer this question.
Is essential tremor a neurodegenerative disease?
Neurodegeneration is the usual suspect when neurologists are looking for ‘a cause’. With essential tremor the focus has been on the cerebellum, the part of the brain that co-ordinates movements. This is logical because tremor is a classical symptom of diseases of the cerebellum. This link, circumstantial as it is, has led researchers to interrogate the cerebellum in essential tremor. In doing this they also wondered if the problem is neurodegenerative. The logic behind this line of thinking is explained in a paper published in JAMA Neurology in 2009 titled, Essential tremors: a family of neurodegenerative disorders?
Pursuing this lead, some researchers have tried to hone down on which of the different types of cerebellar cells is involved in essential tremor. Writing in the journal Movement Disorders, the authors are convinced that the seat of neurodegeneration in essential tremor is the Purkinje cell. Purkinje cells are unique cerebellar cells which are vulnerable to all sorts of insults. The researchers in this case demonstrated significantly fewer Purkinje cells in the brains of people with essential tremor than in control subjects without the disease. And they attributed this pathology to neurodegeneration (what else?). The answer to a long-standing riddle, or a hasty conclusion?
Is essential tremor a channelopathy?
Neurologists have known for a long time that essential tremor has a strong genetic element. The diagnosis always feels more certain when there is another family member with tremor. The exact nature of this genetic link is however uncertain. Into this void comes a research paper suggesting that people with essential tremor may have abnormal cellular channels. Channels are proteins in the cell wall that let electrolytes like sodium and potassium in and out, and channelopathies are diseases that affect these channels. The authors of this paper studied a large essential tremor family who also suffer with epilepsy, a typical channel disorder. And the genetic tests they carried out revealed an abnormality in the SCN4A sodium channel. Correlation or causation? The mystery only deepens, I think.
As researchers dig deeper, they will have to decide if it’s neurodegeneration or channelopathy. Or perhaps both. This may then open the doors to better treatments for the disease, confining Propranolol and Primidone to the history books.