Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is one of the most fearsome and recalcitrant scourges of neurology. We think we know a lot about it; after all it has been a quite a while since Alois Alzheimer described amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in his index patient, Frau Deter. But the more neuroscientists study the disease, the murkier the field looks. For example, we are still not quite sure what the plaques and tangles really signify; for all we know, they may just be innocent bystanders, powerless by-products of a neurodegenerative process that defies understanding. We have accumulated an endlessly long list of AD risk factors, but we have singularly been unable to point a finger at the cause of AD.
This elusive void may however be a void no longer, if what superficially appears to be an outlandish theory turns out to be correct. And the theory is that AD is caused by infection! Just take a deep breathe, and allow yourself the space to make a giant leap of imagination. My attention was first drawn to the infective hypothesis of AD by a headline in Scientific American screaming Controversial New Push to Tie Microbes to Alzheimer’s Disease. The obvious key word here of course is controversial: is it possible that AD, this quintessential neurodegenerative disease, is…just another chronic infection?
To find the original source of the story, the trail of bread crumbs led to an editorial published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2016, plainly titled Microbes and Alzheimer’s Disease. But this is not a run-of-the-mill editorial at all because it was written by 33 senior scientists and clinicians from a dozen countries. And their reason for an alternative theory of AD is simple: amyloid, the long-suspected culprit for decades, has failed to live up to its billing. They point out that amyloid exists harmlessly in the brains of many older people who never go on to develop dementia. They also cite studies which demonstrate that treating amyloid, by immunological means, does not improve the state of people suffering from AD. Amyloid, in other words, is not such a bad guy after all. But all the while we have been setting traps to ensnare it, the microbial villains have been running amok, having a field day.
But why should microbes succeed where amyloid, the ubiquitous protein, has woefully failed? The editorial gave 8 good reasons to argue that the infection theory is better than the amyloid hypothesis. One reason is that the brains of people with AD are often riddled with inflammation, a characteristic feature of infections. Another reason is the observation that AD can be transferred to primates when they are inoculated with the brain tissue of someone with AD.
And the culprit with the most number of index fingers pointing at it is herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV1). The editorial tells us that there have been about 100 publications, by different groups, demonstrating that HSV1 is a ‘major factor‘ in the causation of AD. Some of these studies have shown that people with AD have immunological signs of significant HSV infection in their blood. The editorial goes further to review the possible mechanisms by which HSV1 may cause AD; one of these is the possibility that the virus lowers the risk of AD in people who possess the APOE ɛ4 allele genetic liability.
Just when you are getting your head round the idea, the infection theory takes a very sinister turn. And this relates to the perversemodus operandi of the microbes. The authors tell us that the microbes first gain access to the brains of their victims when they (the victims) were much younger. Like sleeper cells in their ghoulish crypts, the microbes hibernate, biding their time until their victims get older, and their immunity declines. The microbes then awaken, and like malevolent zombies, set out to wreak gory mayhem and cataclysmic destruction. And they do this either by causing direct damage to the brain, or indirectly by inducing inflammation.
You can now descend form your giant imaginative leap and start to wonder: if AD is indeed caused by microbes, what can we do about it? ‘Tis time for some down-to-earth deep thinking.
The Neurology Lounge strives hard to keep to the straight and narrow path of clinical neurology. But every now and then it takes a peek at what is happening at the cutting edge of neuroscience. And what can be more cutting edge then biomarkers, with their promise of simplifying disease identification, making prompt and accurate diagnosis an effortless task.
The quintessential biomarker however remains as elusive as quicksilver. Not that one could tell, going by the rate biomarkers are being spun from the neuroscience mills. Biomarkers are the buzz in many neurological fields, from brain tumours to multiple sclerosis (MS), from Alzheimer’s disease (AD) to Huntington’s disease (HD).
The proliferation of contending biomarkers is however probably highest in the field of motor neurone disease (MND). Is there a holy grail out there to enable the rapid and accurate diagnosis of this relentlessly progressive disease? There is clearly no dearth of substances jostling for prime position in the promised land of MND biomarkers. Below is a shortlist of potential MND CSF biomarkers; just click on any to go to the source!
Biomarkers elevated in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)
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.
Ataxia, in lay terms, is incoordination. This typically manifests as an unsteady gait and clumsiness. Ataxia converts all activities of daily living into burdensome chores. Whilst many types of ataxia are preventable or reversible, primary ataxias are progressive and carry a dismal outlook. In this category are Spinocerebellar ataxia (SCA), Friedreich’s ataxia, and Ataxia telangiectasia. You may read more about ataxia in these previous blog posts:
Brain cancers hardly need any description. They are either primary, arising from the brain cells, or metastatic, spreading to the brain from other organs. Some primary brain cancers, such as meningiomas and pituitary tumours, are, relatively, treatable. Many others are unfortunately ominously malignant. The most dreadful in this category is surely the spine-chilling glioblastoma multiforme. You may check out these previous blog posts for more on these tumuors:
Peripheralneuropathy is ubiquitous in the neurology clinic. Neuropathy may result from reversible situations such as overindulgence in alcohol, uncontrolled diabetes, or Vitamin B12 deficiency. Neuropathy is often just a minor inconvenience when it manifests with sensory symptoms such as tingling and numbness. It may however be debilitating when it presents as limb paralysis, or complicated by major skeletal deformities. At the severe end of the spectrum of neuropathy are the hereditary forms such as CharcotMarie Tooth disease (CMT) and Familialamyloid polyneuropathy. Read more in these blog posts:
CJD is the most iconic of the prion diseases. These disorders are as horrendous as they are enigmatic, defying categorisation as either infections or neurodegenerative diseases. More puzzling is their ability to be either hereditary and acquired. CJD exists in the classic or variant form, but both share a relentlessly rapid course, and a uniformly fatal end. You may read more in these previous blog posts titled:
Dystonia marks its presence by distressing movements and painful postures. At its most benign, dystonia is only a twitch of the eyelid (blepharospasm) or a flicker of one side of the face (hemifacial spasm). At the extreme end, it produces continuous twisting and swirling motions, often defying all treatments. The causes of dystonia are legion, but the primary dystonias stand out by their hereditary transmission and marked severity. Read more on dystonia in these blog posts:
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:
Also known as Amyotrophiclateral sclerosis (ALS), MND is simply devastating. Recognising no anatomical boundaries, it ravages the central and peripheral nervous systems equally. MND creeps up on the neurones and causes early muscle twitching (fasciculations) and cramps. It then gradually devours the nerves resulting in muscle wasting, loss of speech, ineffectual breathing, and impaired swallowing. Our previous blog posts on MND are:
Multiple sclerosis is a very common disease, and gets more common the further away you get from the equator. It is the subject of intense research because of the devastation it foists on predominantly young people. Many drugs now ameliorate, and even seem to halt the progression of, relapsing remitting MS (RRMS). This is however not the case with primary progressive MS (PPMS) which, until the introduction of ocrelizumab, defied all treatments. There are many contenders vying for the cause of MS, but the reason nerves in the central nervous system inexplicably lose their myelin sheaths remains elusive. You may read more on MS in these blog posts:
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:
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.
Uncertainty and doubt abound in Neurology. There are many evidence-free areas where experts rub each other the wrong way. These controversies are big and occur in all neurology subspecialties. Controversy-busters have tried for about a decade to iron out these wrinkles on neurology’s face, but the unanswered questions remain. This is why there is a 10th World Congress of Controversies in Neurology (CONy) holding in Lisbon this year.
I want to assure you I have no conflict of interest to declare in this blog. My interest is to explore which questions have plagued this conference over the last 10 years to pick out the most controversial topics in neurology. To do this I reviewed all previous conference programs and focused on the items that were slated for debate. I looked for practical topics that have remained unresolved, or are just emerging. Here are my top controversial neurological questions:
Which should be the first-line therapy for CIDP? Steroids vs. IVIg
Should disease-modifying treatment be changed if only imaging findings worsen in multiple sclerosis?
Should disease-modifying therapies be stopped when secondary progressive MS develops?
Should non-convulsive status epilepsy be treated aggressively?
Does traumatic chronic encephalopathy (CTE) exist?
Does corticobasal degeneration (CBD) exist as a clinico-pathological entity?
Is ß-amyloid still a relevant target in AD therapy?
Will electrical stimulation replace medications for the treatment of cluster headache?
Carotid dissection: Should anticoagulants be used?
Is the ABCD2 grading useful for clinical management of TIA patients?
Do COMT inhibitors have a future in treatment of Parkinson’s disease?
Going through this list, I feel reassured that the experts differ in their answers to these questions? The acknowledgement of uncertainty allows us novices to avoid searching for non-existent black and white answers. It is however also unsettling that I thought some of these questions had been settled long ago. It goes to show that apparently established assumptions are not unshakable?
Do you have the definitive answers to resolve these controversies? Are there important controversies that are missing here? Please leave a comment