The 13 most dreadful neurological disorders…and the groups standing up to them

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.

Brain Art. Ars Electronica on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/arselectronica/7773544158

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.

Neural pathways in the brain. NICHD on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/nichd/16672073333

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.

Working Brain. Gontzal García del Caño on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/euskalanato/2052487054

Ataxia

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: The 43 spinocerebellar ataxias: the complete checklistsOld drugs, new roles?, and Will Riluzole really be good for cerebellar ataxia?

Brain tumours

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: Calming the rage of brain tumours: hope for a dreaded cancerMaggots, viruses and lasers: some innovations for brain tumoursand Are steroids detrimental to survival in brain tumours?

Peripheral neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy 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 Charcot Marie Tooth disease (CMT) and Familial amyloid polyneuropathy. Read more in these blog posts: The 52 variants of CMT… and their practical checklistsWhat’s looming at the frontline of peripheral neuropathy? and Will a pill really hold the cure for CMT?

Creutzfeldt Jakob disease (CJD)

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 Final day of ANA 2015- Prions center stage, and What are the links between Prion diseases and Parkinsonian disorders?

Dementia

Dementia is the scourge of longevity. Its name strikes terror because it insidiously colonises the cells that make us who we are. The most prominent dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, but it has equally dreadful companions such as Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB). Read more on dementia in these blog posts: How bright is the future for Alzheimer’s disease?Alzheimer’s disease: a few curious things, and Alzheimers disease and its promising links with diabetes.

Dystonia

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: Why does dystonia fascinate and challenge neurology? and Making sense of the dystonias: the practical checklists.

Huntington’s disease (HD)

Huntington’s disease 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? 

Motor neurone disease (MND) 

Also known as Amyotrophic lateral 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. It is no wonder that one of the most read post on this blog is titled Is neurology research finally breaking the resolve of MND? Other previous blog posts on MND are The emerging links between depression and MNDWhat is the relationship of MND and cancer?Does diabetes protect from MND?, and MND and funeral directors-really?

Multiple sclerosis (MS)

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: The emerging progress from the world of MS , What are the remarkable drugs which have transformed the treatment of MS?, and Is low vitamin D a cause of multiple sclerosis?

Muscular dystrophy 

Muscular dystrophy is an umbrella term that covers a diverse range of inherited muscle diseases. The most devastating, on account of its early onset and unrelenting progression, is Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). Adult neurologists will be more familiar with late onset muscular dystrophies such as Myotonic dystrophy and Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD). Read more on muscular dystrophy in these previous blog posts: How is neurology stamping out the anguish of Duchenne? and The A–Z of limb girdle muscular dystrophy (LGMD).

Rabies

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 neurological disorders? But you could better by checking neurochecklists for details of the clinical features and management of rabies.

Spinal cord injury

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

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, clinical features, and management of tetanus.

 

Light brain. Mario D’Amore on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/kidpixo/3470448888

As for all lists, this will surely be subject to debate, or perhaps some healthy controversy. Please leave a comment.

The emerging links between depression and MND

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.

Von Vincent van Gogh - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Gemeinfrei, Link
Von Vincent van Gogh – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Gemeinfrei, Link

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

Depression. Nils Werner on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/130721398@N06/25363062843
Depression. Nils Werner on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/130721398@N06/25363062843

 

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.

https://pixabay.com/en/sky-clouds-rays-of-sunshine-414199/
https://pixabay.com/en/sky-clouds-rays-of-sunshine-414199/

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Masitinib, a breakthrough drug shattering neurology boundaries

In the process of writing a blog post on the research findings altering neurological practice, my sight fell on the drug, Masitinib. I was completely unaware of this tyrosine kinase inhibitor, one of the promising drugs in the fight against multiple sclerosis (MS). We are likely to hear a lot more about Masitinib in MS in the coming months.

By Zeldj - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
By ZeldjOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Masitinib is however not flexing its muscles just in neuro-inflammation. On the contrary, it is seeking laurels far afield, in the realm of neuro-degeneration. I was indeed pleasantly surprised to find that researchers are studying the impact of Masitinib on two other horrible scourges of neurology. The first report I came across is the favourable outcome of a phase 3 trial of Masitinib in motor neurone disease (MND) or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The drug reportedly ‘reached its primary objectives‘ of efficacy and safety. In this trial, Masitinib was used as an add-on to Riluzole, the established MND drug. It’s all jolly collaborative at this stage, but who knows what threat Masitinib will pose to Riluzole in future! You may read a bit more on Masitinib and MND in this piece from Journal of Neuroinflammation.

By Capilano1 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
By Capilano1Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

The second report I came across is the potential of Masitinib in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). This is at the phase 2 trial stage, and already showing very good outcomes in people with mild to moderate AD. Masitinib was used as an add-on drug to the conventional AD medications Memantine, Donepezil, Galantamine and Rivastigmine. These drugs can therefore rest comfortably on their thrones…at least for now! You can read a bit more on Masitinib and AD in this article from Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics.

Alzheimer's Disease. Hamza Butt on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/141735806@N08/28007367952
Alzheimer’s Disease. Hamza Butt on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/141735806@N08/28007367952

The question however remains, why should one drug work well on such disparate diseases? I know, this feels like deja vu coming shortly after my last blog post titled Alzheimers disease and its promising links with diabetes. In that post I looked at the promise of the diabetes drug, Liraglutide, in the treatment of Alzheimers disease. I have however also reviewed this type of cross-boundary activity of drugs in my older posts, Will riluzole really be good for cerebellar ataxia? and old drugs, new roles? Perhaps Masitinib is another pointer that, as we precisely define the cause of diseases, they will turn out to be merely different manifestations of the same pathology. Food for thought.

Benjah-bmm27 assumed. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims). Public Domain, Link
Benjah-bmm27 assumed. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims). Public Domain, Link

 

As I said, this wasn’t the post I set out to write. So watch out for my next blog post, the major research outcomes altering neurological practice.

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What is the relationship of MND and cancer?

There are many sources of neurology information, as I listed in my previous post titled what are the most reliable neurology reference sources? These sources let us know what is in and what is out; what is breaking and what has gone stale. Keeping on top of the ever-shifting information the journals churn out is challenging, but interesting. This information is the life blood of The Neurology Lounge, and keeps neurochecklists current and reliable.

Reference tracker icon. Berto on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/bertop/2485992973
Reference tracker icon. Berto on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/bertop/2485992973

In the task of keeping level with neurological developments, I first go to the journal Neurology, one of the clear leaders of the pack. Check it out on twitter under its handle, @GreenJournal. Browsing through a recent issue, I  was struck by a paper titled Population-based risks for cancer in patients with ALS. The authors of this paper report that people with motor neurone disease (MND) appear to be protected from developing many cancers, including the notorious lung cancer. In contrast, they are at a higher risk of testicular and salivary gland cancer.

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Curious to know more, I looked for previous reports on this topic but I came out not any wiser. Older research have given conflicting results on the links between MND and cancer. Take this paper published in the International Journal of Cancer titled The risk of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis after cancer in U.S. elderly adults: a population-based prospective study. This found no links at all, as did another paper published in Journal of Neurology titled Prior medical conditions and the risk of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. On the other hand, other researchers found that people with MND were at a higher risk of cancer. An example is this paper titled The association between cancer and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, published in Cancer Causes and Control. This reported a link between MND and melanoma, and with tongue cancer. The bulk of the research before now however suggests that there is no link. Take this paper published in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis & Frontotemporal Degeneration, and titled Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and cancer: a register-based study in Sweden; the authors, led by Ammar al Chalabi, sounded an authoritative ring of finality when they said “our results provide no evidence for comorbidity of cancer and ALS“. Before now, that is!

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So, is the latest study bucking the trend? Does MND really protect against some cancers and predispose to others? What does this all mean for people with MND? Or is all this just a quirk of the statistics? Questions, questions. I suspect this paper has just re-opened a can of worms, and more studies will surely follow. And they will refute and confirm the findings in equal measure.

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For now, MND remains an enigma. You may explore it a bit more in my previous blog posts on the subject…and leave your thoughts behind in the comments box.

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7 ominous signs that suggest you need to see a neurologist

Neurologists spend most of their time diagnosing benign conditions which are curable or treatable, or at least people learn to live with. Every now and then we see people with startling symptoms such as coma, convulsions, neck stiffness, or paralysis. These are obviously concerning to patients and their families who have a foreboding of diseases such as meningitis, epilepsy, and stroke. Serious as these disorders are, they at least announce themselves and show their hands. Many other neurological symptoms unfortunately give no hint of the serious diseases that follow in their trail. That is when things get a bit tricky.

Ominous. Ankakay on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ankakay/4101391453
Ominous. Ankakay on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ankakay/4101391453

What are these seemingly benign symptoms which jolt neurologists out of their blissful complacency? What are these red flag symptoms that pretend they are grey? Here are my 7 deceptively ominous neurological signs everyone should know about.

7. A numb chin

By Henry Vandyke Carter - Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body (See "Book" section below)Bartleby.com: Gray's Anatomy, Plate 784, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=531758
By Henry Vandyke CarterHenry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body (See “Book” section below)Bartleby.com: Gray’s Anatomy, Plate 784, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=531758

This must be the most deceptive sinister symptom in neurology. Not many people will rush to their doctors to complain about a numb chin, but it is a symptom that makes neurologists very nervous. This is because the chin gets its sensory supply from the mandibular branch of the fifth cranial nerve, also called the trigeminal nerve because it has three branches. And neurologists know that, for some bizarre reason, cancers from other parts of the body occasionally send deposits to this nerve. The numb chin syndrome is therefore not to be treated lightly.

6. Muscle twitching

OK, don’t panic yet. We have all experienced this; a flickering of an overused and tired muscle; a twitching of the odd finger; the quivering of the calf muscles in older people. Neurologists call these fasciculations, and they are only a concern if they are persistent, progressive, and widespread. And also usually only if the affected muscles are weak. In such cases neurologists worry that fasciculations are the harbingers of sinister diseases, particularly motor neurone disease (MND), better known in America as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig disease. Many people with muscle twitching will however have nothing seriously wrong with them, and many will be shooed out of the consulting room with the label of benign fasciculations syndrome (we love our syndromes, especially when they are benign). There are many other causes of fasciculations, but MND is clearly the most sinister of them all.

5. Transient visual loss

Scott Maxwell on freestockphotos. http://www.freestockphotos.biz/stockphoto/9747
Scott Maxwell on freestockphotos. http://www.freestockphotos.biz/stockphoto/9747

Neurologists often ask people with headache if their vision blurs or disappears for brief periods of time. These visual obscurations are not as dramatic as the visual loss that accompanies minor strokes or transient ischaemic attacks (TIAs). Visual obscurations affect both eyes and last only a few seconds. They are the result of sudden but brief increases in an already elevated pressure in the head. This may occur with relatively benign conditions such as idiopathic intracranial hypertension (IIH), but it may also portend a serious disorder such as a brain tumour.

4. Sudden loss of bowel or bladder control

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Loss of control down there would surely concern many people, but often not with the urgency it deserves. There are many non-neurological causes of bowel or bladder incontinence, but a sudden onset suggests that it is arising from the nervous system. The worrying diagnoses here are spinal cord compression and spinal cord inflammation (transverse myelitis). These disorders are often associated with other symptoms such as leg stiffness and weakness, but I really wouldn’t wait until these set in before I ask to see a neurologist.

3. Saddle anaesthesia

bicycle-saddle-791704_1920

Whilst we are on the topic of things down there, a related sinister symptom is loss of sensation around the genitals and buttocks, something your doctor will prudently call saddle anaesthesia. This arises when the nerves coming off the lower end of the spinal cord, collectively called the cauda equina, are compressed. The unpalatable condition, cauda equina syndrome (CES), worries neurologists because the compression may be due to a tumour in the spinal canal.

PS: The bicycle saddle is an apt analogy, but if you prefer horse riding, below is an alternative image to soothe your hurt feelings.

 

By BLW - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1956552
By BLW – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1956552

2. A painful droopy eyelid

A droopy eyelid is a deceptively benign symptom which worries neurologists. This symptom, which neurologist prefer to call ptosis, is particularly concerning if it is accompanied by double vision. One worrying disorder which causes ptosis is myasthenia gravis (MG), and this presents with ptosis on both sides. More sinister is ptosis which is present only on one side, particularly if it is painful. This may be caused by brain aneurysms, especially those arising from a weakness of the posterior communicating artery (PCOM) artery. As the aneurysm grows, it presses on the third cranial or oculomotor nerve, one of three nerves that controls the eyeballs and keeps the eyelids open. An aneurysm is literally a time-bomb in the brain as they wield the threat of bursting and causing a catastrophic bleeding around the brain. This makes ptosis an ominous, but also a helpful, neurological symptom.

By Cumulus z niderlandzkiej Wikipedii, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3167579
By Cumulus z niderlandzkiej Wikipedii, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3167579

There are many other causes of ptosis including Horner’s syndrome, so don’t panic yet but get that eyelid checked out if it refuses to straighten out.

 

1. Thunderclap headache

By © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24189896
By © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24189896

thunderclap headache is a symptom that means exactly what it says on the label! Neurologists will ask if the onset felt as if one was hit by a cricket bat. Even though most people have never been so assaulted, almost everyone with thunderclap headache readily agree this is what it feels like. It is such a distressing symptom that it doesn’t strike the afflicted person (pun intended) that their doctors are more concerned about investigating them, then they are in curing their headache. They patient is rushed to the CT scanner, and then subjected to a lumbar puncture. The doctors then heave a huge sigh of relief when the spinal fluid shows no blood or blood products, reassured that the patient has not suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage (SAH) from a ruptured a brain aneurysm. The patient, who now has just another headache, is left to get to grips with their now, suddenly, very uninteresting symptom. There are many other causes of a thunderclap headache, but a ruptured aneurysm is the most sinister. If you develop a thunderclap headache, don’t wait to see a neurologist…just get to the nearest hospital!

PS: Don’t feel aggrieved if you are across the Pacific; it is also a thunderclap headache if it felt like being hit by a baseball bat!

Baseball bat in sun. Peter Chen on Flikr https://www.flickr.com/photos/34858596@N02/3239696542
Baseball bat in sun. Peter Chen on Flikr https://www.flickr.com/photos/34858596@N02/3239696542

 

Want to check out more ominous signs? Check out Smart handles and red flags in neurological diagnosis by the neurologist Chris Hawkes in Hospital Medicine.

 

Is neurology research finally breaking the resolve of MND?

Motor neurone disease (MND) is, to say the least, dreadful. It also doesn’t help that the terminology neurologists use adds to the distress. West of the Atlantic, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) means MND but goes eastwards and it is only a subtype of MND. Thankfully, for most Americans at least, there is no confusion; it is simply Lou Gehrig disease.

By Goudey [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Goudey [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

MND however remains a conundrum for neurologists who are struggling to solve its puzzling riddles. MND researchers continue to toil and sweat, but their efforts are bearing fruits. Take for example the great strides that established the link between MND and the C9ORF72 gene. What are the promising prospects in the world of MND? Here are some.

Associations: Thiamine deficiency and Diabetes 

By Jynto [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Jynto [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Should we be on the lookout for thiamine deficiency in patients with MND? This question is prompted by an article in the JNNP which shows an unexpectedly high frequency of laboratory, but not clinical, thiamine deficiency. Titled Thiamine deficiency in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the paper reported thiamine deficiency in about 28% of subjects with MND. The authors did not impute any causal association, and there is nothing to suggest that replenishing the thiamine improved outcomes. It is still worth thinking about because people with MND, as the paper emphasised, are at risk of thiamine deficiency.

Another reported association, more difficult to fathom, is the one between MND and diabetes mellitus. The report in the European Journal of Neurology is titled Association between diabetes and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in Sweden. Why am I sceptical?

Risk factor: Human endogenous retrovirus K (HERV K) 

Retrovirus capsid. A J Cann on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ajc1/3269017701/in/photostream/
Retrovirus capsid. A J Cann on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ajc1/3269017701/in/photostream/

The cause for MND remains unknown. Risk factors however abound such as smoking and other environmental risk factors. You may now add human endogenous retrovirus K (HERV K) to that list. This is according to a recent paper in Science Translational Medicine titled Human endogenous retrovirus-K contributes to motor neuron disease. The authors report that HERV K is activated in some people with MND, and it is the envelope proteins that cause damage to tissues. The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) think this is an important development, and it released a press statement titled Dormant viral genes may awaken to cause ALS. Scary! Is this important, or just another risk factor? Only time will tell.

Pathology: Neuromuscular junction inflammation 

By Elliejellybelly13 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40798702
By Elliejellybelly13Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40798702

This sounds almost sacrilegious- the thought that inflammation may really play a role in MND. And at the neuromuscular junction (NMJ), not the anterior horn cells. Well, some researchers are ready to commit blasphemy; publishing in Experimental Neurology, the authors showed evidence of inflammation in the muscles and NMJs of rat models of MND. They went further to show that injecting a growth factor called GDNF reduced this inflammation. Do I perceive a potential treatment pathway? Read all about it if you dare, its titled Macrophage-mediated inflammation and glial response in the skeletal muscle of a rat model of familial amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Treatment target: TDP-43 protein 

By Emw (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
By Emw (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
Will MND ever be a curable disease? A big question, but this is the vision of all the hard-working researchers in this field. What are the prospects for a cure? One group of researchers believe the answer is in preventing misfolding of TDP-43, the protein that plays an important role in MND. They set out their case in an article published in Neurotherapeutics titled TDP-43 Proteinopathy and ALS: Insights into Disease Mechanisms and Therapeutic Targets. And don’t worry, its free access. The bold abstract says it all: “we present the case that preventing the misfolding of TDP-43 and/or enhancing its clearance represents the most important target for effectively treating ALS”. The proof of the pudding….

Diagnostic test: Nerve ultrasound

By Oleg Alexandrov - self-made with MATLAB, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3036844
By Oleg Alexandrov – self-made with MATLAB, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3036844

Making the diagnosis of MND is not always (make that is hardly ever) straightforward. In the early stages, symptoms are vague, and clinical signs are non-specific. MND also has many mimics. One of such mimics is multifocal motor neuropathy (MMN). To distinguish this and other mimics from MND, neurologist rely on a test called nerve conduction study (NCS). Even this however is not always helpful.

Researchers have now reported that ultrasound may be more sensitive in distinguishing MND from MMN. Another sacrilegious thought! They published their paper in Journal of Neurology with a rather long title: Nerve ultrasound in the differentiation of multifocal motor neuropathy (MMN) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis with predominant lower motor neuron disease (ALS/LMND). Could the diagnosis of MND really be this simple? I am concerned that there were only 16 subjects with MND in the study, all from one centre. Perhaps a randomised, multi-centre, trial will come to the rescue?

Diagnostic biomarker: Brain iron deposition 

By Oleg Alexandrov - self-made with MATLAB, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3036844
By Oleg Alexandrov – self-made with MATLAB, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3036844

Brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is not a test neurologist rely upon to make the diagnosis of MND. Not anymore it seems, going by an article in American Journal of Neuroradiology. The paper is titled A Potential Biomarker in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. In the article, the authors assessed the amount of iron deposition in the brains of people with MND using the MRI techniques called SWI and DTI. Their findings suggest that the amount of iron in the motor cortex and motor tracts of the brain is a good guide to the presence of MND. If confirmed, this technique will help to reduce the long time it often takes before neurologists confirm their suspicions of MND to patients and their families.

Prognostic biomarker: Neurofilament light chain (NfL) 

Neurofilament and MBP. Dan O'Shea on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/dan_oshea/4079086197
Neurofilament and MBP. Dan O’Shea on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/dan_oshea/4079086197

The outcome of MND, poor as it often is, varies quite widely. This is influenced by several factors such as the type of MND, use of the medicine riluzole, and multidisciplinary care. New research suggests that neurofilament light chain (NfL) may be a more sensitive marker of prognosis. This is reported in an article published in Neurology titled Neurofilament light chain: A prognostic biomarker in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The authors demonstrated that patients with MND have much higher levels of NfL than those without the disease. Furthermore, subjects with MND who had the highest levels at the onset had a higher mortality hazard ratio. I think I know what that means.

Prognostic scale: ALS-MITOS predictive system

A paper in the JNNP has proposed a new predictive system for MND called ALS-MITOS, reportedly better than the more familiar ALSFRS-R. The report is titled The MITOS system predicts long-term survival in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Most practicing neurologists wouldn’t know the difference because they don’t to use such predictive systems. But MND researchers would be licking their lips at the prospect of a better measure of disease progression; it will make it much easier for them to show that their interventions really do work!

Treatment: Copper 

By Native_Copper_Macro_Digon3.jpg: “Jonathan Zander (Digon3)"derivative work: Materialscientist (talk) - Native_Copper_Macro_Digon3.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7223304
By Native_Copper_Macro_Digon3.jpg: “Jonathan Zander (Digon3)”derivative work: Materialscientist (talk) – Native_Copper_Macro_Digon3.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7223304

There are >100 mutations in the superoxide dismutase 1 (SOD-1), a gene known to cause MND. SOD-1 is an enzyme that binds both copper and zinc, and when defective it results in mutant copper (don’t worry, I’m just finding this out myself). Acting on this hypothesis, researchers came up with a crafty way of delivering normal copper into the central nervous system of  mice modelled with SOD-1 MND. Publishing in Neurobiology of Disease, the authors showed how they achieved this with CuATSM, a chemical that contains copper and currently used for PET scans. CuATSM is readily transported into the nervous system, delivering its copper as it does so.

The paper has a rather cumbersome title: Copper delivery to the CNS by CuATSM effectively treats motor neuron disease in SODG93A mice co-expressing the Copper-Chaperone-for-SOD. The result is however anything but. The technique extended the lives of the mice by an average of 18 months. Unbelievable it seems. Any doubts however vanished when, on stopping the treatment, the mice died within 3 months. The finding is exciting enough for Eureka Alert to run the story with the headline New therapy halts progression of Lou Gehrig’s disease in mice. ‘Halt’ sounds very much like ‘cure’, but lets put the brakes on and wait for confirmation in human trials .

Treatment: Gene therapy

Gene_therapy. 1Droid JamLos on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jamlos/2734418031
Gene_therapy. 1Droid JamLos on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jamlos/2734418031

Every recalcitrant disease is today threatened with gene therapy. Considering it has a long list of genetic risk factors, why should MND be any different? Research taking steps in this direction is therefore long overdue. One such step was published in Gene Therapy and is titled Healthy and diseased corticospinal motor neurons are selectively transduced upon direct AAV2-2 injection into the motor cortex. The authors report that they successfully transduced motor nerves of mice models of MND. In doing so they have set the stage for gene therapy in MND. I don’t claim to understand it all, but it sounds very much like they have set the ball rolling. Promising.

Treatment: Stem cell therapy

By Ryddragyn at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2148036
By Ryddragyn at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2148036

Where gene therapy goes, stem cell therapy seems to follow. And this comes from JAMA Neurology with a classic unwieldy academic title: Safety and Clinical Effects of Mesenchymal Stem Cells Secreting Neurotrophic Factor Transplantation in Patients With Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. The content isn’t any easier to interpret, and I will not pretend I get it at all. I comfort myself that it’s all at the ‘open-label, proof of concept‘ stage, and only the very brainy brains need to delve further. But it seems to offer hope.

By Jim Campbell/Aero-News Network - http://www.flickr.com/photos/39735679@N00/475109138/ / http://mediaarchive.ksc.nasa.gov/detail.cfm?mediaid=31873, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3655144
By Jim Campbell/Aero-News Network – http://www.flickr.com/photos/39735679@N00/475109138/ / http://mediaarchive.ksc.nasa.gov/detail.cfm?mediaid=31873, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3655144

 

The sky is surely the limit. Here are a couple of other headlines if you wish to explore further:

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MND and funeral directors-really?

A recent report published in July in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry (JNNP) suggests a link between motor neurone disease (MND) and funeral directors. The alleged culprit here is formaldehyde, but other chemicals and agents were not let off the hook.

By Mogens Engelund - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3713401
By Mogens Engelund – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3713401

The numbers involved are not large, and the authors advise caution in making interpretations. Your patients have however read the report, for example in this piece in the Telegraph. And almost certainly without the cautionary note! This is important because another study, less widely publicised, found no asssociation between MND and formaldehyde.  

Methanal Molymod. Formaldehyde molecule. Brian Edgar on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/29803258@N02/4996943255
Methanal Molymod.
Formaldehyde molecule. Brian Edgar on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/29803258@N02/4996943255

The list of potential causes and risk factors for MND, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), is quite long. There seems to be a link with smoking, but not alcohol, which apparently reduces the risk. There appears to be a convincing association with lead exposure, but the evidence is not strong enough for other heavy metals.

By Alchemist-hp (talk) (www.pse-mendelejew.de) - Own work, FAL, Link
By Alchemist-hp (talk) (www.pse-mendelejew.de) – Own work, FAL, Link

Its not all doom and gloom however. Farmers can feel reassured that pesticides and herbicides do not appear to be risky. Furthermore Vitamin E appears to protect against developing MND, although such associations must always be taken with a slight pinch of salt!

Spraying pesticides on bananas in the 1980s. Scott Nelson on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/scotnelson/9159665647
Spraying pesticides on bananas in the 1980s. Scott Nelson on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/scotnelson/9159665647

For more on MND/ALS, see my other blog posts:

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