Myasthenia gravis (MG) is an iconic neurological disorder. It is classical in its presentation, weakness setting in with exertion and improving with rest. This fatigability is demonstrable in the laboratory when repetitive nerve stimulation (RNS) of the muscles results in a progressively decrementalresponse. Clinically, myasthenia gravis is often a benign disorder which restricts itself to the muscles of the eyes: this ocular MG manifests just with droopy eyelids (ptosis) and double vision (diplopia). At the extreme however is generalised MG, a severe and life-threatening condition that justifies its grave appellation.
Myasthenia gravis depletes the energy reserve of muscles, something which is entirely dependent on acetylcholine (ACh), a chemical released at nerve endings. After release, ACh traverses the neuromuscular junction (NMJ) to attach itself to the acetylcholine receptor (AChR), which is comfortably nestled on the surface of the muscle. This binding of chemical to receptor is a significant event, setting sparks flying, and muscles contracting. In myasthenia gravis, this fundamental process is rudely disrupted by the onslaught of acetylcholine receptor antibodies. These aggressive AChR antibodies, produced by the thymus gland in the chest, vent their rage by competitively binding to the receptor, leaving acetylcholine high and dry. Eventually, the rampaging antibodies destroy the receptor in an act of unjustified savagery.
In tackling myasthenia gravis, it is no wonder that neurologists first have to hunt down the ferocious AChR antibodies. They whisk off an aliquot of serum to a specialist laboratory, but waste no time in planning a counteroffensive, confident that the test will return as positive. The strategy is to boost the level of acetylcholine in the NMJ, tilting the balance in favour of ACh against the antibodies. The tactic is to zealously despatch a prescription for a drug that will block acetylcholine esterase inhibitor, the enzyme which breaks down acetylcholine. The neurologist then closely observes the often dramatic response, one of the most gratifying in clinical medicine; one minute as weak as a kitten, the next minute as strong as an ox. MG is therefore one disorder which debunks the wicked jibe that neurologists know so much…but do so little to make their patients better!
Unfortunately for the neurologist, every now and then, the AChR antibody test result comes back as negative. In the past, the dumbfounded and befuddled, but nevertheless undaunted neurologist, will march on, battling a diagnosis of antibody-negative MG. Nowadays however, this not a comfortable diagnosis to make because AChR antibody is no longer the only game in town. We now know that there are many other antibodies that are jostling for commanding positions in the anti-myasthenia coalition. These include anti LRP4,cotarctin, titin,agrin,netrin1, VGKC, andryanodine. However, the clear frontrunner in this melee is anti-MUSK antibody, responsible for 30-50% of MG in which there are no AChR antibodies.
Anti MUSK syndrome has many distinguishing featuresthat set it apart from the run-of-the-mill myasthenia gravis. Below are five distinctive markers of anti-MUSK syndrome:
Subjects with anti-MUSK syndrome are typically middle-aged women in their 3rd or 4th decades. This is younger than the usual age of people with AChR MG. Indeed neurologists now recognise typical myasthenia as a disease of older people.
Single fiber electromyogram (sfEMG), a specific and reliable neurophysiological test of MG, is often normal in anti-MUSK syndrome. This is partly because the limb muscles are usually spared in anti MUSK syndrome.
People with anti-MUSK myasthenia often do not benefit from, nor do they tolerate, the acetylcholinesterase inhibitors which are used to treat MG. Indeed, these drugs may worsen anti-MUSK syndrome.
Thymectomy, removal of the thymus gland, is not beneficial in people with anti-MUSK syndrome, unlike its usefulness in AChR MG.
All this is just the tip of the evolving myasthenia gravis iceberg. You may explore more of myasthenia in our previous blog posts:
Giant cell arteritis (GCA) is a nasty inflammatory disorder that affects the large arteries. Because it characteristically involves the temporal artery, this form of vasculitis is also referred to as temporal arteritis. It usually affects people over the age of 50 years and manifests with sudden onset headache, scalp pain, and a thick, tender temporal artery. GCA is often accompanied by polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) , a painful condition of the joints and muscles. The active systemic inflammation in GCA is often detected by the erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) or C-reactive protein (CRP) tests. These distinguishing features constitute most of the diagnostic criteria for GCA.
Most people with GCA however do not have all the ‘classical’ features of the disease. A high index of suspicion is therefore required to sniff out the duplicitous miscreant. It is particularly imperative to make the diagnosis as early as possible to prevent the dreaded complications of GCA, sudden blindness and stroke. The treatment of GCA, implemented according to established treatment guidelines, involves several months of oral steroids, drugs which cause immune suppression and a host of other side effects. It is therefore essential that the diagnosis of GCA is made correctly to avoid putting the patient on a long, risky, and unnecessary treatment.
What then is the value of the temporal artery biopsy in the diagnosis of GCA? This is the question posed by Bowling et al in their incisive paper titled Temporal artery biopsy in the diagnosis of giant cell arteritis: does the end justify the means?They reviewed 129 temporal artery biopsies and found that the clinical diagnosis of GCA was confirmed in only 13% of cases. Furthermore, the outcome of the biopsy rarely ever influenced the treatment; 87% of those with a normal biopsy result still continued their treatment. The miffed authors therefore rhetorically, and indignantly, asked: “can we justify invasive surgery to all patients on histological grounds when the results may not alter management?”
This is an entirely reasonable question especially because there are other more accurate and less invasive ways of establishing the diagnosis of GCA. These include:
But the answer to the authors’ rhetorical question is anyones guess. It is a sad tradition of medicine that studies such as these take ages to change practice. Indeed I predict the the temporal artery biopsy will sidestep this minor hurdle and simply continue its long and agonising reign. Despair!
Statins are famous, and their fame lies in their ability to bust cholesterol, the villain in many medical disorders such as heart attack (myocardial infarction) and stroke. Some may add that statins are infamous, and this is partly because of their side effects such as muscle pain. Love them or hate them, we can’t get away from statins…even as the debate rages about their benefits and downsides.
It is not surprising therefore that the statin debate will filter into neurology. The sticking point here however has nothing to do with cholesterol busting, but all to do with whether statins increase or reduce the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease (PD). Strange as it may seem, statins and PD have a long history. And a positive one generally, I hasten to add. There is a large body of evidence to suggest a protective effect of statins on PD as reflected in the following studies:
The authors of this paper set out to investigate ‘the controversy surrounding the role of statins in Parkinson’s disease’. In this retrospective analysis of over 2,000 people with PD, and a similar number of control subjects, theauthors found that statins significantly increased the risk of developing PD. This is clearly a conclusion looking for a fight!
I must admit I was totally unaware there was any controversy about statins and PD. I was therefore curious to find out what studies are out there fuelling it. Which other trials have bucked the trend and reported an increased risk of PD from statins? And where best to find the answers but in PubMed, the repository of all human knowledge! And I found that there were only a few studies that did not report a protective effect of statins on PD, and these studies concluded, quite reasonably, that they found no relationship between PD and statins. Here are a few of the studies:
These papers reporting the absence of evidence seem happy to engage in an amicable debate to resolve the question.
One study however stood out like a sore thumb because it positively reported a negative effect of statins on PD (try and work that out!). This 2015 study, also published in Movement Disorders, is titled Statins,plasmacholesterol, and risk of Parkinson’s disease: a prospective study. The paper concludes that “statin use may be associated with a higher PD risk, whereas higher total cholesterol may be associated with lower risk“. Not only are the authors arguing that statins are bad for PD, they are also suggesting that cholesterol is good! This is a paper that was itching for fisticuffs.
What is a jobbing neurologist to do? What are the millions of people on statins to do? Whilst awaiting further studies, I will say stay put. Go with the bulk of the evidence! And keep track of TheSimvastatin Trial, funded by TheCure Parkinson’s Trust. This trial is looking at the benefit of statins in slowing down PD. And surely, very soon, the science will lead to a resolution of the argument-all you need to do is keep track of everything PD in Neurochecklists.
Neurology embodies some of the most dreadful diseases known to man. Every neurological disorder is disheartening, each characterised by unique frustrations for patients and their families. It is difficult to quantify the distress and misery these afflictions impose on their victims, and even harder to appreciate the despair and anguish they evoke in those who care for them.
It is clearly hard to compare the impact of different neurological diseases. Some neurological disorders however stand out because of the consternation their names evoke, and the terror that follows in their wake. These diseases come with unimaginable physical and psychological burdens, and crushing demands on human and material resources. They impose either a debilitating morbidity, or a hasty mortality.
The nervous system ailments in the list below pose exacting therapeutic challenges, resistant as they are to all attempts at treatment or cure. This list sets out to emphasise the urgency for neuroscience to find a remedy for each of them, but it does not intend to belittle the horror of the disorders omitted from it. The choice of the number 13 is, sadly, self-evident. Here then are the top 13 most dreadful neurological disorders…all with gold links to the associations helping to defeat them.
Huntington’sdisease is an iconic eponymous neurological disorder which is marked by the vicious triumvirate of chorea, dementia, and a positive family history. It is an awful condition, often driving its victims to suicide. It is a so-called trinucleotide repeat expansion disorder, implying that successive generations manifest the disease at an earlier age, and in more severe forms (genetic anticipation). You may read more on HD in the previous blog post titled What are the prospects of stamping out Huntington’s disease?
Rabies, a rhabdovirus, is a zoonosis-it is transmitted to man by a wide range of animals such as dogs, bats, racoons, and skunks. It is the quintessential deadly neurological disease, popularised by the Steven King book and film, Cujo. Rabies manifests either as the encephalitic (furious) or the paralytic (dumb) forms. It wreaks havoc by causing irritability, hydrophobia (fear of water), excessive sweating, altered consciousness, and inevitably death. Whilst there are vaccines to protect against rabies, a cure has eluded neuroscientists. This blog is yet to do justice to rabies but it is, at least, listed in the post titled What are the most iconic neurologicaldisorders? But you could better by checking neurochecklists for details of the clinicalfeatures and management of rabies.
Nothing is quite as heart-wrenching as the sudden loss of body function that results from spinal cord trauma. This often causes paralysis of both legs (paraplegia), or all four limbs (quadriplegia). This life-changing disorder is often accompanied by loss of control over bowel and bladder functions, and complications such as bed sores and painful spasms. You may read about the heroic efforts to treat spinal cord injury in the blog posts titled 6 innovations in the treatment of spinal cord injury and Head transplant, anyone?
Tetanus is an eminently preventable disease, now almost wiped out in developed countries by simple immunisation. It however continues its pillage and plunder in the developing world. It strikes young and old alike, often invading the body through innocuous wounds. Tetanus is caused by tetanospasmin and tetanolysin, the deadly toxins of the bacterium Clostridium tetani. The disease is classified as generalised, localised, cephalic, or neonatal tetanus. It is characterised by painful spasms which manifest as lockjaw (trismus), facial contortions (risus sardonicus), trunkal rigidity (opisthotonus), and vocal cord spasms (laryngospasm). The disease is awfully distressing and, when advanced, untreatable. It is a stain on the world that this avoidable disorder continuous to threaten a large number of its inhabitants. Check neurochecklists for more on the pathology,clinicalfeatures, and management of tetanus.
As for all lists, this will surely be subject to debate, or perhaps some healthy controversy. Please leave a comment.
At first, it seemed like a single drop, but it is quickly turning into a trickle. The first inkling was a study of >1,700 people with motor neurone disease (MND) which was published in the journal Neurology titled Depression in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The authors found that depression is a very frequent diagnosis shortly before people are diagnosed with MND.
Surely a coincidence, I thought. A rogue finding, or even an understandable response to illness. My excuses were however debunked by another paper published soon after in the Annals of Neurology. Titled Psychiatric disorders prior to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the study found that depression may precede the diagnosis of MND by more than 5 years. The authors also report a high frequency of other psychiatric conditions preceding the diagnosis of MND, such as anxiety and psychosis.
And just off the press is this report from Nature Communications titled Genetic correlation between amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and schizophrenia. What do we make of this? Is this just the tip of the iceberg? Surely more studies are needed before any firm conclusions. Perhaps this may lead to some early biomarker that enables neurologists to stop the process of progression to full blown MND. Perhaps.
Prophetic it seems, as I am here forced to revisit the topic because I came across a few recent interesting reports on the neurology of gluten.
Take this case report from Nutrients titled gluten psychosis: confirmation of a new clinical entity. The article comes with some good references that suggest it will do no harm to check anti-gliadin antibodies in people with unexplained psychosis. I do wonder how one case report would confirm an entity such as gluten psychosis, but there you are.
Gluten-induced visual impairment
The second item is another case report published in Journal of Neurology titled severe, persistent visual impairment associated with occipital calcification and coeliac disease. The subject of the case report has long-standing coeliac disease and visual impairment. Her brain MRI scan showed calcifications in the visual area, evidence the authors claim, of celiac disease causing brain calcifications …..and thereby causing the patients visual loss. Is it just a case of correlation rather than causation? But there you are.
Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (CIDP) is as complicated to articulate, as it is to manage. CIDP is the result of an inflammatory attack against myelin, the fatty layer that encases large nerves. The damage to the myelin sheath considerably slows down the speed at which nerves transmit electrical impulses. This leads to limb weakness, sensory impairment, and a host of other symptoms.
The diagnosis of CIDP is made on the basis of a clinical examination, nerve conduction studies (NCS), spinal fluid analysis, and countless blood tests. If this convoluted diagnostic process is hair-tearing, the treatment is even more perplexing.
There are 2 major CIDP treatment conundrums. The first is whether to start the treatment with steroids, or with intravenous immunoglobulins (IVIg). The second conundrum is what to do when the patient fails to respond to both of these first line CIDP treatments. Two recent papers have now come to the rescue, and they hope to settle, once and for all, these two major neurological puzzles.
1. Choosing steroids or IVIg as 1st line treatment
The first line treatment for CIDP is usually a toss-up between steroids and intravenousimmunoglobulins (IVIg). This is because neurologists had no way of telling who will do well on steroids, and who will respond to IVIg. Until now, that is. A recent report in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry (JNNP) set out to understand what patient characteristics predict response to IVIg. The authors studied >200 people with CIDP treated with IVIg, and reported that 1/4 did not respond. These IVIg non-responders had the following features:
The presence of pain
Association with other autoimmune diseases
A difference in the severity of weakness between the arms and the legs
The absence of anti-myelin associated glycoprotein (anti-MAG)
The authors conclude that people with CIDP who have the features above should start their treatment with steroids rather than IVIg. This surely beats tossing a coin.
2. Choosing rituximab as 1st line treatment
Choosing the 2nd line treatment of CIDP is comparatively easy; swap between IVIG and steroids, or go for plasma exchange (PE). Rituximab, a monoclonal antibody, is now also recognised as an effective treatment for CIDP. Conventional practice is to use this expensive treatment only when both IVIg and steroids fail. A recent paper however suggests that people with CIDP who also have IgG4 antibodies do not respond to either IVIg or steroids. On the bright side however, they do well when treated with Rituximab. The paper in the journal Neurology is titled Rituximab in treatment-resistant CIDP with antibodies against paranodal proteins. The authors studied only 4 patients, but the number was enough for them to suggest that patients with CIDP, who also have IgG4 antibodies, should be treated with Rituximab. Makes sense to me, if the alternative is predictable failure.
Now that some light has been shone on the treatment of CIDP, the next stage is to see how things work at the coal face. Do you have any feedback on CIDP treatment? Please leave a comment.