I am yet to request serum neurofilament light protein (NfL) in my practice. I am not sure yet why I should, but until now I confess I really haven’t looked for a reason to do so. I however know that some MSologists now tick it, along with other blood tests, when they investigate people they suspect may have multiple sclerosis (MS). NfL are proteins that are released by damaged neurones. Should I be requesting NfL in my clinical practice? I sniffed around to find the case for testing serum NfL, and below is what I found.
Many studies have looked at the value of NfL in MS. One such very well-planned study that addresses many of my questions is that by Guili Disanto and colleagues, published in the journal Annals of Neurology in 2017. In the paper, titled Serum Neurofilament light: a biomarker of neuronal damage in multiple sclerosis, the authors studied >380 people with MS and >150 healthy controls, and report four important findings.
The levels of NfL in serum strongly correlate with the levels in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) of people with MS.
People with more active and more severe MS had higher levels of NfL.
People with MS on disease modifying treatment (DMT) had lower NfL levels than those who were not on treatment.
In people with MS who had their serum NfL tested serially over time, the level of NfL predicted those who will develop frequent relapses or progressive MS.
The authors concluded, with enough justification I think, that serum NfL is a “sensitive and clinically meaningful blood biomarker to monitor tissue damage and the effects of therapies in MS“.
As for long term outcome, the 10 year follow up study by Alok Bahn and colleagues, published in the Multiple Sclerosis Journal in 2018, is most informative. In their paper titled Neurofilaments and 10-year follow-up in multiple sclerosis, the authors noted that “CSF levels of NfL at the time of diagnosis seems to be an early predictive biomarker of long-term clinical outcome and conversion from RRMS to SPMS”. Further support for the long term prognostic value of serum NfL comes from a paper published in 2018 in the journal Brain titled Serum neurofilament as a predictor of disease worsening and brain and spinal cord atrophy in multiple sclerosis. The authors, Christian Barro and colleagues, studied more than 250 people with MS and concluded that “the higher the serum neurofilament light chain percentile level, the more pronounced was future brain and cervical spinal volume loss“.
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.
At first, it seemed like a single drop, but it is quickly turning into a trickle. The first inkling was a study of >1,700 people with motor neurone disease (MND) which was published in the journal Neurology titled Depression in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The authors found that depression is a very frequent diagnosis shortly before people are diagnosed with MND.
Surely a coincidence, I thought. A rogue finding, or even an understandable response to illness. My excuses were however debunked by another paper published soon after in the Annals of Neurology. Titled Psychiatric disorders prior to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the study found that depression may precede the diagnosis of MND by more than 5 years. The authors also report a high frequency of other psychiatric conditions preceding the diagnosis of MND, such as anxiety and psychosis.
And just off the press is this report from Nature Communications titled Genetic correlation between amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and schizophrenia. What do we make of this? Is this just the tip of the iceberg? Surely more studies are needed before any firm conclusions. Perhaps this may lead to some early biomarker that enables neurologists to stop the process of progression to full blown MND. Perhaps.
Prophetic it seems, as I am here forced to revisit the topic because I came across a few recent interesting reports on the neurology of gluten.
Take this case report from Nutrients titled gluten psychosis: confirmation of a new clinical entity. The article comes with some good references that suggest it will do no harm to check anti-gliadin antibodies in people with unexplained psychosis. I do wonder how one case report would confirm an entity such as gluten psychosis, but there you are.
Gluten-induced visual impairment
The second item is another case report published in Journal of Neurology titled severe, persistent visual impairment associated with occipital calcification and coeliac disease. The subject of the case report has long-standing coeliac disease and visual impairment. Her brain MRI scan showed calcifications in the visual area, evidence the authors claim, of celiac disease causing brain calcifications …..and thereby causing the patients visual loss. Is it just a case of correlation rather than causation? But there you are.
Medical futurists predict that scientific advances will lead to more precise definition of diseases. This will inevitably result in the emergence of more diseases and fewer syndromes. This case is made very eloquently in the book, The Innovators Prescription. Many neurological disorders currently wallow at the intuitive end of medical practice, and their journey towards precision medicine is painfully too slow. Neurology therefore has a great potential for the emergence of new disorders.
In the ‘good old days’, many diseases were discovered by individual observers working alone, and the diseases were named after them. In this way, famous diseases were named after people such as JamesParkinson, Alois Alzheimer, and GeorgeHuntington. For diseases discovered by two or three people, it didn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to come up with double-barrelled names such as Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) or Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome (LEMS).
Today, however, new diseases emerge as a result of advances made by large collaborations, working across continents. These new diseases are named after the pathological appearance or metabolic pathways involved (as it will require an act of genius to create eponymous syndromes to cater for all the scientists and clinicians involved in these multi-centre trials). This is unfortunately why new disorders now have very complex names and acronyms. Take, for examples, chronic lymphocytic inflammation with pontine perivascular enhancement responsive to steroids (CLIPPERS) and chronic relapsing inflammatory optic neuropathy (CRION). It is a sign that we should expect new neurological diseases to be baptised with more descriptive, but tongue-twisting, names.
New disease categories emerge in different ways. One is the emergence of a new disorder from scratch, with no antecedents whatsoever. Such was the case with autoimmune encephalitis, a category which has come from relative obscurity to occupy the centre stage of eminently treatable diseases. I have posted on this previously as What’s evolving at the cutting edge of autoimmune neurology and What are the dreadful autoimmune disorders that plague neurology?Other disease categories form when different diseases merge into a completely new disease category, or when a previously minor diseases mature and stand on their own feet. These are the stuff of my top 8 emerging neurological disorders.
This huge monster is ‘threatening’ to bring together, under one roof, diverse disorders such as tuberous sclerosis complex, epilepsy, autism, traumatic brain injury, brain tumours, and dementia. You may explore this further in my previous blog post titled mTORopathy: an emerging buzzword for neurology.
4. Hepatitis E virus related neurological disorders
A field which is spurning new neurological disorders is neurological infections, and Hepatitis E virus (HEV) is in the forefront. We are now increasingly recognising diverse Hepatitis E related neurological disorders. HEV has now been linked to diseases such as Guillain Barre syndrome (GBS) and brachial neuritis. And the foremost researcher in this area is Harry Dalton, a hepatologist working from Cornwall, not far from me! And Harry will be presenting at the next WESAN conference in Exeter in November 2017.
Multisystem proteinopathy is a genetic disorder which affects muscles and bone, in addition to the nervous system. It is associated with Paget’s disease of the bone and inclusion body myositis, with implications for motor neurone disease (MND) and frontotemporal dementia (FTD). Quite a hydra-headed monster it seems, all quite complex, and perhaps one strictly for the experts.
7. GLUT-1 deficiency syndromes
GLUT-1 stands for glucose transporter type 1. Deficiency of GLUT-1 results in impaired transportation of glucose into the brain. GLUT-1 deficiency syndrome presents with a variety of neurological features such as dystonia, epilepsy, ataxia, chorea, and a host of epilepsy types. It starts in infancy and is characterised by a low level of glucose and lactic acid in the cerebrospinal fluid. Expect to hear more on this in the near future.
8. Progressive Solitary Sclerosis
And this is my favourite paradigm shifter. Neurologists often see people with brain inflammatory lesions and struggle to decide if they fulfil the criteria for multiple sclerosis (MS). The current threshold for concern is when there have been two clinical events consistent with inflammation of the nervous system, or their MRI scan shows involvement of at least two different sites of the nervous system. Well, dot counting may soon be over, going by this paper in Neurology titled Progressive solitary sclerosis: gradual motor impairment from a single CNS demyelinating lesion. The authors identified 30 people with progressive clinical impairment arising from a single inflammatory nervous system lesion. The authors were convinced enough to recommend the inclusion of this new entity, progressive solitary sclerosis, in future classifications of inflammatory disorders of the central nervous system. Move over progressive MS, here comes progressive SS. Neurologists will surely have their job cut out for them.
Do you have any suggestions of emerging neurological disorders? Please leave a comment
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 neurochecklistscurrent and reliable.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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 horseriding, below is an alternative image to soothe your hurt feelings.
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.
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
A 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!
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.