Possible Link Between a Virus and "Lou Gehrig's Disease"

February 2, 2000

ALS is also known
as Lou Gehrig's Disease
Able to think, unable to move. The mind trapped within the body. That is how people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) describe their condition. Their thinking abilities including memory are working, but their bodies will not respond to commands from the brain to move. ALS is also called "Lou Gehrig's Disease" after the famous baseball player who died of the disorder in 1941. The National Institutes of Health estimates that there are 20,000 people in the United States with ALS and 5,000 new cases each year.

ALS is caused when certain neurons in the motor cortex and spinal cord die. These neurons control voluntary muscles and the ability to move. As these neurons die, a person may become weak and paralyzed. ALS is not contagious, but it may run in families.

There are several drugs to treat the symptoms of ALS, but there is no cure and the cause of this disorder is still unknown. Research published in the journal Neurology (January 2000) suggests that a virus may be responsible for ALS.


Motor neuron in
the spinal cord.
Scientists in the US, France and Austria collaborated to examine the spinal cords of people who died with ALS and those from a control group of people who died of other causes. The researchers were interested to see if the spinal cord tissue from those people with ALS was infected with an enterovirus. When the data were analyzed, the virus was found in the tissue from 15 of 17 patients (88.3%) who had ALS, but in the tissue of only 1 of 29 control patients (3.4%).

These data suggest a link between the enterovirus and ALS. However, still unknown is how the virus gets into neurons and whether the presence of the virus is the cause of the disease or a result of the disease. If further research determines that the virus is a cause of ALS, then it is possible that anti-viral therapies could be developed to fight this disorder.


Spinal Cord Samples

References and further information:

  1. About Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
  2. Fact Sheet: Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis
  3. ALS from the NINDS
  4. ALS - Interactive tutorial from the National Library of Medicine
  5. Berger, M.M., Kopp, N., Vital, C., Redl, B., Aymard, M. and Lina, B. Detection and cellular localization of enterovirus RNA sequences in spinal cord of patients with ALS. Neurology, 54:20-25, 2000.

They said it!

"I am quite often asked: How do you feel about having ALS? The answer is, not a lot. I try to lead as normal a life as possible and not think about my condition or regret the things it prevents me from doing, which are not that many."
--- Steven W. Hawking, 1973 (in Black Holes and Baby Universes and other Essays)

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