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.
In the excellent book, The Innovators Prescription, the authors predict that precisionmedicinewill replace intuitive medicine, and diseases will be defined by their underlying metabolic mechanisms, and not by the organs they affect, or the symptoms they produce. Clayton Christensen and colleagues argue that this precise definition of diseases will lead to more effective treatments. But they also show that precision medicine will show that many different diseases actually share the same underlying metabolic derangements. Many disparate diseases will therefore turn out to be just mere manifestations of the same metabolic disease.
Why should Liraglutide work so well in both diabetes and Alzheimer’s, diseases with apparently different pathologies? The answer lies in insulin resistance, the underlying mechanism of type 2 of diabetes; there is now evidence that insulin resistance contributes to dementia. If this is the case, Liraglutide, by improving glucose metabolism, could potentially treat both diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
To explore this potential further, there is now a large multicentre trial exploring the real benefit of Liraglutide in Alzheimer’s disease. Titled Evaluating Liraglutide in Alzheimer’s Disease or ELAD, it is recruiting people with mild disease, aged between 50-85 years old, and who do not have diabetes. As they say, watch this space!
But why is a neurologist talking about seahorses. It’s all in the name. The Latin name for seahorse is hippocampus , derived from hippos for horse, and kampos for sea monster. Where biologists saw fish, the ancients saw monsters. And you really can’t blame them…take a closer look
It is no mystery why neuroanatomists name this important part of the brain after the seahorse, the resemblance is eerily striking.
Neurologists are passionate about the hippocampus for various reasons. In people with memory complaints, for example, hippocampal atrophy may predict the development of Alzheimer’s disease . A shrunken hippocampus is also seen in some forms of epilepsy. Neurologists thereforeendlessly harangue their neuroradiology colleagues to look closely at their patients’ brain MRI scans, and to tell them that the hippocampus is shrunken…even if it’s just a little bit smaller. Unfortunately for the neuroradiologists, the MRI scans do not come colour-coded as in the illustrative scan below.
This blog post is however about major depression, and not about epilepsy or dementia. Depression, that bad feeling we all feel every now and then is frustrating, but major depression is devastating. And we now know that it is accompanied by major alterations in the structure of the brain. And, yes, the changes are in the hippocampus. I got interested in this subject when I came across a piece in Neurology News reporting that people with depression have a smaller hippocampus.
The association of depression with hippocampal atrophy is however an old one. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) reviewed the relationship in an editorial from 2011 titledDepression, antidepressants, and the shrinking hippocampus. The author addressed the unresolved puzzle…which of the two came first. Reminiscent of the chicken and egg scenario, it is not clear if the hippocampal atrophy causes depression, or vice versa. To add to the puzzle, the paper conjectured the possibility of a third, unknown agent, causing both the depression and the small hippocampus.
This question was the focus of a meta-analysis published in Molecular Psychiatry this year. It reviewed the brain imaging data of 15 studies, involving about 1700 people with major depression. Titled Subcortical brain alterations in major depressive disorder, the authors confirmed the link between depression and hippocampal atrophy, and also showed that the shrinkage is worse in those who developed depression at an early age, and in those who have had frequent episodes of depression.
Does depression lead to hippocampal atrophy? The meta-analyses hinted so, but there were too many caveats for the authors to arrive at a definitive conclusion. They admit that more needs to be done to unravel depression….leaving the mystery of the shrinking seahorses to continue to another day.
Neurology is a broad specialty covering a staggering variety of diseases. Some neurological disorders are vanishingly rare, but many are household names, or at least vaguely familiar to most people. These are the diseases which define neurology. Here, in alphabetical order, is my list of the top 60 iconic neurological diseases, with links to previous blog posts where available.
The Neurology Lounge has a way to go to address all these diseases, but they are all fully covered in neurochecklists. In a future post, I will look at the rare end of the neurological spectrum and list the 75 strangest and most exotic neurological disorders.
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
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is scary. It is the most prevalent cause of dementia, and the name strikes terror, especially to those with a close family history of the condition. It is disturbing when a person loses the concept of ‘self’. It is devastating when parents fail to recognise their children.
Any progress in finding the cause or the cure for this neurodegenerative disease should therefore be celebrated. Following on my previous post, Alzheimer’s disease: a few curious things, here are my top10 breakthroughs giving hope for Alzheimer’s disease.
Based on a premise that high brain iron levels are related to the pathology in Alzheimer’s disease, researchers have looked at iron reducing therapies. This isn’t a new idea because an article in Lancet from 1991 was titled Intramuscular desferrioxamine in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. This study showed that the progression of Alzheimer’s disease could be slowed down by reducing the iron levels in the brain. New Scientist has brought this therapeutic strategy back into contention in its article titled Iron levels in brain predict when people will get Alzheimer’s. The article tantalisingly refers to a link between high iron levels and ApoE4, a gene associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Watch this space.
It would be surprising if monoclonal antibodies did not crop up in this post, being the rage in many other diseases. The monoclonal antibody raising hopes in Alzheimer’s disease is Solanezumab. I came across this in Russia Today (yes…RT) in an article titled Alzheimer’s breakthrough? First ever drug found that may slow disease. ‘First ever’ is obviously hype, but there does seem to be some benefit of Solanezumab, even if this is restricted to those with early disease. The phase 3 trial of Solanezumab, called EXPEDITION 3, will study this effect further. More hope, less hype!
There is no getting away from it, and gene therapy had to crop up in this post. And yes, it may have a role in the future of Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers genetically treated 10 Alzheimer’s disease patients using nerve growth factor (NGF) gene, and then waited and waited, …and then studied the brains of the subjects. They reported their findings the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) under the title Nerve Growth Factor Gene Therapy Activation of Neuronal Responses in Alzheimer Disease. The details of the study are rather complicated, but it appears the nerve growth factor treatment triggered nerve growth. Doesn’t sound like rocket science but imagine the potential. I only wished they had used a more straightforward title. I prefer the layman’s version in The Guardian simply titled Gene therapy rescues dying cells in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Scientific journals really need better headline writers!
A cocktail mixture which transforms the brain’s supporting cells into proper nerve cells? Not science fiction it seems. A group of scientists have developed a mixture which could reprogram glial cells into functional brain cells. I came across this in Neurology Times under the title Transforming Glial Cells. For a change, the original research paper is well headlined; it is published in Cell under the title Small Molecules Efficiently Reprogram Human Astroglial Cells into Functional Neurons. The authors show that the cocktail of nine small molecules do the trick by inhibiting glial pathways and activating neuronal pathways. And this all happens within 8-10 days! Too good to be true? Hopefully not.
Looking for more? Here are 13 headlines to further raise the spirits of people with Alzheimer’s disease: