Lou Gehrig's disease

amyotrophic lateral sclerosis

What is ALS?

ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative (meaning loss of function of the neurons) disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.

  • Amyotrophic = no muscle nourishment
  • Lateral = the area of the spinal cord that signals and controls the muscles
  • Sclerosis = scarring or hardening

The motor nerves that are affected when you have ALS are the motor neurons that provide voluntary movements like walking, reaching for something, etc. and muscle control.

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Muscular: cramping, muscle weakness, problems with coordination, stiff muscles, loss of muscle, muscle quiver, or overactive reflexes

Respiratory: shortness of breath or shortness of breath on lying down

Speech: vocal cord spasm or impaired voice

Whole body: fatigue or feeling faint

Also common: apathy, difficulty swallowing, drooling, lack of restraint, severe unintentional weight loss, tremor, or difficulty raising the foot

Tests and Disgnosis

ALS is difficult to diagnose early because it may appear similar to several other neurological diseases.

  • Electromyogram (EMG).During an EMG, your doctor inserts a needle electrode through your skin into various muscles. The test evaluates the electrical activity of your muscles when they contract and when they're at rest.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Using radio waves and a powerful magnetic field, an MRI can produce detailed images of your brain and spinal cord.
  • Spinal tap (lumbar puncture). Sometimes a specialist may remove a sample of your spinal fluid for analysis. In this procedure, a specialist inserts a small needle between two vertebrae in your lower back and removes a small amount of cerebrospinal fluid for testing in the laboratory.
  • Blood test: a doctor may use blood tests to check for the enzyme creatine kinase which leaks out of damaged muscle. Blood tests can also be used for genetic testing to detect hereditary ALS.

Treatment and Prognosis

Physical therapy and several medications can help but there is no cure for ALS. In ALS, both the motor neurons degenerate or die, ceasing to send messages to muscles. Unable to function, the muscles gradually atrophy and twitch. Eventually the ability of the brain to start and control voluntary movement is lost. This causes inevitable death. Treatment will prolong life by only a few months.

Famous sufferers


ALS is inherited in 5 to 10 percent of cases. The other cases appear to occur randomly.Possible causes of ALS include: gene mutation, chemical imbalance, disorganized immune response.

History and Research

ALS was first found in 1869 by French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, but it wasn't until 1939 that Lou Gehrig brought national and international attention to the disease when he delivered his farewell speech. Stem cells have emerged as a major tool for research for ALS treatment, but it is not yet clear what their therapeutic potential is.