What is Lou Gehrig’s Disease?
Lou Gehrig’s Disease, technically known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), is a disease entailing part of the nervous system. It progresses gradually, affecting nerve cells found both in the brain and in the spinal cord.
The nervous system
Nerve cells, known as neurones, form an extensive network all around the body.
Two types of these exist:-
- Sensory neurones
- Motor neurones
Sensory nerves transmit messages from the sensory organs (eyes, skin, ears, taste buds) which capture stimuluses from the environment to the brain for their processing, while motor nerves relay this information from the brain to the motor organs which bring about a reaction to the stimulus sensed. More specifically, the motor neurones spread from the brain to the spinal cord, and from there, they branch to the muscles across the body.
Lou Gehrig’s Disease (or, ALS) with respect to the nervous system
When a person is affected by ALS, his motor neurones undergo progressive degeneration until they eventually die out. When these crucial nerves die, the body can no longer coordinate some of the body’s activities since the brain cannot, as of then, initiate and dictate muscle movement according to the stimuluses sensed by the other nerves. When the areas in the spinal cord where parts of the motor nerve cells are found degenerate, scarring occurs whereby that region hardens – sclerosis occurs.
The messages that should have been carried by the motor nerves are hence not sent to the muscles for reactions to occur since the motor neurones are dead. Muscle movement is thus lost, such that one cannot move one’s muscles voluntarily. Ultimately, in later and more critical stages of ALS, the patient may become completely paralysed.
Symptoms of ALS
- Increasing muscle weakness: the arms, legs, speech, swallowing, breathing are all affected.
- Atrophy occurs: the muscles become smaller. Since the muscles no longer receive the information from the neurones so that they can react, they become inactive.
- Limbs become thinner as a result of muscle tissue atrophies.
Which motor neurones are affected by ALS?
When one is affected by ALS, the motor neurones enabling voluntary movements to occur, and also those accounting for muscle power, are affected. These movements are what allow us to do our daily activities like reaching out to take a glass of water, whereby the muscles have to be moved out of a voluntary impulse from the person to be able to extend his arms to hold the glass in between his hands.
Only those movements that are voluntary are affected. Otherwise, other muscle movements occur involuntarily, the efficiency of which is not directly affected by ALS. For instance, heart beats are brought about by involuntary muscle movement, or even, the process of digestion whereby the muscles of the digestive system help to break down food. As a matter of fact, the heart and digestive system are not affected by ALS.
Studies are ongoing so as to find out the leading cause of ALS, as well as the mechanisms behind that trigger the degeneration of nerve cells to ultimately impact negatively on muscles involved in voluntary movements.
Treatment for ALS
Patients have to undergo certain therapies to manage the disease. Special devices are also used to assist them.
The rate at which the disease develops varies from patient to patient, so each case is specific in that sense.