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“.
In medicine, microbes are notorious for causing disease. In neurology particularly, infection is the direct cause of serious diseases such as meningitis and encephalitis. Infections may also act as catalysts for neurological disorders, for example when they trigger Guillain Barre syndrome (GBS). Infection is therefore a villain, a scoundrel to be apprehended and disarmed whenever it rears its head. But this picture may not hold true when it comes to multiple sclerosis (MS) where a contrary story is emerging, a narrative which holds infection as the hero, the daredevil that will save the day. The premise is simple: MS has very little presence in the regions of the world where infections reign supreme. Just look at any world prevalence map of MS to be convinced.
How strong is this inverse relationship between infection and MS? It all boils down to the so-called hygeine hypothesis of autoimmune diseases. This suggests that the human immune system becomes dysregulated when it is not primed by infections, and this dysregulation results in autoimmune disorders. This point was strongly argued by Aakanksha Dixitand colleagues in their paper published in the International Journal of Molecular Science, titled Novel Therapeutics for Multiple Sclerosis Designed by Parasitic Worms. They contend that the relationship between parasitic infections and autoimmune diseases is “most compelling“, going on to assert that helminthic infections “may be the protective environmental factor against the development of MS”.
To support the hygiene theory of MS, that helminthic infections play a role in banishing MS, three levels of evidence are offered.
Neurologists are however very cynical people, and they never believe what single trials tell them. After all, many microbes, such as Ebstein Barr virus (EBV), are touted as MS risk factors. For the sceptical neurologist, only systematic reviews and meta-analyses will do; these are the stuff of our dreams, the essence of our daily existence. So it is with a huge cheer that neurologists welcomed a 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis published in the Journal of Neuroimmunology and titled Is toxoplasma gondii playing a positive role in multiple sclerosis risk? The paper poured verycold water on the beautiful hygiene hypothesis. Whilst the authors, Reza Saberi and colleagues, confirmed that MS subjects had a lower risk of exposure to T. gondii, they found no relationship between this parasite and the development of MS. Wither a theory when it hits the reality of cold statistical analysis.
Notwithstanding the systematic review, the helminth hypothesis marches on. It has even reached the stage of therapeutic trials where, as distasteful as it sounds, subjects ingest parasites by mouth! And the fancied parasite is not Toxoplasma gondii but Trichuris suis ova (TSO). It all began with a small observational trialin 10 people which proved that TSO is safe and well-tolerated (phew), but it had no value whatsoever in treating MS. Not discouraged, the hypothesis entered the slightly larger HINT 2 trial; this again confirmed good tolerability in 16 subjects, but any benefit in reversing MS was questionable. Undeterred, the hypothesis has gone for a bigger study in the form of the TRIOMS trial. This is a randomized, placebo-controlled study of 50 people with MS or clinically isolated syndrome (CIS) in which subjects will be ingesting 2,500 Trichuris suis eggs every two weeks. We wait with bated breaths for the results.
Autoimmunedisorders are probably the most proliferative field of neurology. It seems like there is a blazing headline every week announcing a new antibody disease. Many of these antibodies are esoteric, but some shake the foundations of medical practice. Anti-MOGantibody is one of those which requires you to stop and pay attention, and it has significantly affected neurological practice in a very big way.
Perhaps the most important thing about anti-MOG antibody disease is that, like the chameleon, it presents in many guises. For the neurologist therefore, the first thing is to recognise these varied manifestations. Here then is a quick list of the 9 manifestations of anti MOG antibody disorder.
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.
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
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a common and blighting neurological disease. It frequently targets young people, often with disabling effects. It may affect any part of the central nervous system, and it manifests with relapsing or steadily progressive clinical features.
Research is improving our understanding of MS at a breathtaking pace. Just as one is getting comfortable with the status quo, a sudden paradigm shift occurs. This is the work of the men and women in white coats, labouring in dingy labs, peering down powerful microscopes, and scrutinising imaging scans-all in the drive to improve the care of people who suffer from this defiant disease. To avoid becoming dinosaurs, neurologists have to keep up with the rapid developments at the cutting-edge of multiple sclerosis.
It seems a long time ago now when the treatment of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) revolved just around interferons and steroids. Since then the monoclonal antibodies have changed the field radically. Drugs such as natalizumab and alemtuzumab are now mainstream, and many other ‘mabs’ have followed fast on their heels. Daclizumab is about to come into clinical practice soon, and ocrelizumab is full of promise for progressive MS, as discussed in this article in Medscape. With the floodgates now fully opened, other ‘mabs’ such as ofatumumab are trooping in fast. Unfortunately not all monoclonal antibodies are making the grade; an example is Opicinumab (anti LINGO-1), touted as a drug that boosts nerve signals, but which latest reports indicate failed to meet up to its high expectations.
Fingolimod is the leader in the pack of sphingosine-1-phosphate receptor modulators. It has led the way and has the advantage that it is taken by mouth rather than by injection. It is limited by its risks on heart activity, and must be initiated under close cardiac monitoring. Beyond MS, it may have a wider impact on neurological practice as it is under consideration in the treatment of motor neurone disease (MND). Following quickly behind fingolimod, still in trial stages, are laquinimod, ozanimod, ponesimod, siponimod, and amiselimod. It is still not clear if these drugs will have a similar impact as the monoclonal antibodies, in which case we may end up with the war of the ‘Mabs’ versus the ‘Mods’.
Terifluonomide is another oral drug developed for the treatment of MS. It is a pyrimidine synthesis inhibitor. Unlike dimethyl fumarate, a recent Cochrane database review for terifluonomide found only low-quality evidence from 5 clinical trials. The review says ‘all studies had a high risk of detection bias for relapse assessment, and a high risk of bias due to conflicts of interest‘. Not very glowing tributes, but in its favour is the low frequency of significant side effects.