ALS stands for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It’s also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, after the famous baseball player who died from it. ALS is a neurodegenerative disorder, which means that it is a disease where neurons die. It is almost always fatal.
ALS attacks the spinal cord, killing the neurons which control muscle movement. When you decide to move, a message is sent from your brain, through neurons in the spinal cord, and down to the muscles. Without those spinal cord neurons, your brain can’t control your muscles.
The disease starts with muscle weakening, and slowly progresses to paralysis. As if slowly losing the ability to use arms and legs wasn’t bad enough, patients have difficulty chewing, digesting, speaking and, eventually, breathing. But here’s the truly terrifying thing (at least, in my opinion): cognitive function isn’t impaired. This means that mind, intelligence, and memory are unaffected. In other words, the person is fully aware of what is happening to them. Their body is shutting down muscle by muscle, and they know it.
About 5,600 people will be diagnosed with ALS each year, and most of those will die within five years of diagnosis. ALS can affect anyone, regardless of race or background. ALS is frightening and painful for those suffering it. It’s terrible for families and friends too, as they watch their loved ones slowly die.
ALS is one of the great questions of neuroscience. We don’t really understand what causes it, and there’s no cure. ALS isn’t contagious. It’s hereditary in only about 5% of cases. The other 95% are a mystery. The drug riluzole can slow down the disease for a few months, but slowing down the disease isn’t the same as curing it. Lots of neuroscientists are studying ALS, trying to figure out what causes it and how to cure it. So here’s a thought: If you are thinking about becoming a neuroscientist when you grow up, you could study ALS, and maybe make a real difference in someone’s life.
To learn more about ALS or to find out ways to help, visit the web page of the ALS Association at http://www.alsa.org/.