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.

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.

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.


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 checklists

Old drugs, new roles?

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 cancer

Maggots, viruses and lasers: some innovations for brain tumours 

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 checklists 

What’s looming at the frontline of peripheral neuropathy?

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

What are the links between Prion diseases and Parkinsonian disorders?


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 

Alzheimers disease and its promising links with diabetes


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?

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. Our previous blog posts on MND are:

Is neurology research finally breaking the resolve of MND?

The emerging links between depression and MND

What is the relationship of MND and cancer?

Does diabetes protect from MND?

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?

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?

The A–Z of limb girdle muscular dystrophy (LGMD)


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

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, clinical features, and management of tetanus.


Light brain. Mario D’Amore on Flikr.

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

Why does dystonia fascinate and challenge neurology?

Dystonia is probably the most nebulous of neurological terms. Neurologists use the term for a vast array of neurological diseases. Dystonia also crops up as part of many complex neurological syndromes. Worse still, neurologists also use the name dystonia as a symptom. All quite confusing and perplexing for the lay observer.

Public Domain, Link
Public Domain, Link

No wonder dystonia defies simple definitions. Take the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) definition which labels dystonia as “a disorder characterized by involuntary muscle contractions that cause slow repetitive movements or abnormal postures“. Then compare it with the NHS Choices definition which sees dystonia as “a medical term for a range of movement disorders that cause muscle spasms and contractions“. We must accept the flexibility of dystonia as both a disorder, and a range of disorders. The defining feature of dystonia however is simple enough-abnormal muscle postures and contractions.

By Katomin at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
By Katomin at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The complexity in the definition is just a tip of the iceberg of the things that neurologists find fascinating about dystonia. Here are 5 big reasons why dystonia excites and challenges neurologists.

1. Dystonia is a very visible disorder

Rogers Hartmann at TEDxSMU from tedxsmu on Vimeo.

The abnormal postures that typify dystonia are observable, and the neurologist can describe and define the disorder (or disorders!). This is not the case with many neurological disorders such as migraine, which rely entirely on a history, or epilepsy, which rely heavily on eyewitness accounts. The abnormal postures in dystonia are often very dramatic, and sometimes literally defy description. To help ‘decode’ complex dystonia, neurologists often make video recordings of their patients and send to dystonia experts. And dystonia experts present their own video recordings at neurology conferences, to teach the less initiated of course, but also to flaunt their well-earned expertise.

2. Dystonia is both hereditary and acquired

Von James Heilman, MD - Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Von James Heilman, MDEigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Many types of dystonia are hereditary. Myoclonus-dystonia and dopa-responsive dystonia (DRD) for example are caused by well-defined genetic mutations. Dystonia is however also frequently acquired, for example as an adverse effect of antidepressant, antipsychotic, and anti-epileptic drugs. Neurologists go to great lengths to sort out what type of dystonia their patients have, bristling with anticipation that the next genetic blood test they send off will clinch the diagnosis. It doesn’t seem to matter that this is often hope trumping experience.

3. Dystonia manifests in a multitude of ways

By Henry Vandyke Carter - Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body (See "Book" section below) Gray's Anatomy, Plate 1194, Public Domain, Link
By Henry Vandyke CarterHenry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body (See “Book” section below) Gray’s Anatomy, Plate 1194, Public Domain, Link

Dystonia may be localised such as with blepharospasm (excessive eyelid twitching), hemifacial spasm, Meige’s syndrome, and cervical dystonia (torticollis). At the same time, dystonia may be generalised as in Wilson’s disease, neuroferritinopathy, and neuroacanthocytosis. Dystonic symptoms often manifest spontaneously, but they may only be task-specific such as in writers cramp and musician’s dystonia. A further way dystonia crops up is as an ally of other movement disorders, as we see with dystonic tremor.

4. Dystonia is a rapidly evolving field

Bootstrap DNA by Charles Jencks, 2003. Mira66 on Flikr.
Bootstrap DNA by Charles Jencks, 2003. Mira66 on Flikr.

Unlike some neurological specialities that are stuck with age-old diseases, dystonia experts regularly describe new dystonia syndromes and genetic mutations, filling up an already crowded taxonomy. An example is the ever-expanding genetic mutations that cause primary dystonia, starting from DYT 1 to DYT 21, and still counting. The field of non-genetic dystonia is also expanding with new disorders such as Watchmaker’s dystonia. Well-established dystonia syndromes also surprise neurologists by manifesting in completely unexpected ways. Recent examples of these new phenotypes are foot drop dystonia resulting from parkin (PARK2) mutation. Neurologists also get excited when they come across known, but rare, presentations of dystonic syndromes such as this recent report on feeding dystonia in chorea-acanthocytosis. 

5. Treatments of dystonia are proliferating

Drugs. Daniel Foster on Flikr.
Drugs. Daniel Foster on Flikr.

Just as the types of dystonia are burgeoning, so are the treatments. Some interventions are novel, and some have a feel of ‘back to the future’. A few recent examples are treatment of isolated dystonia with zolpidem and selective peripheral denervation for cervical dystonia. Enough to keep the dystonia researchers busy, and to keep their patients feeling valued. Old school treatment such as botulinum toxin however maintain their pride of place. 

Human Genome. Richard Ricciardi on Flikr.
Human Genome. Richard Ricciardi on Flikr.


For more on dystonia syndromes and treatment, check out:


Dystonia is a hydra; why not get a concise handle by exploring the dystonia topics in neurochecklists  

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