An article this week from Shirley Wang, a Wall Street Journal reporter, brought the public’s attention back to the fact that there is no cure for the usually fatal disorder, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a paralytic disease caused by the gradual degeneration of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The breakdown of neruons interrupts the ability of muscles of the body to send messages to the brain. ALS results in difficulties in talking, swallowing, moving, and paralysis, and eventually, the loss of the ability to breathe.
An international group of scientists recently reported in the journal Nature, that the lack of a certain protein might be the common underlying cause of neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS, dementia, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. The task of this specialized protein is to remove the debris of damaged nerve cells and help in their repair. When this function no longer occurs, normal transmission of signals from muscles to brain is blocked.
One individual commented on Ms Wang’s article. “It seems outrageous to me that in 2011 a quickly fatal disease that was brought to our national attention in 1939 continues to steal our best and brightest without any treatment and with few clues as to the cause. We must do better….”
I agree. Instead of treating a condition after damage has occurred, why not prevent excessive inflammatory responses from causing damage in the first place? The ALS Association does an excellent job explaining that, “The glia cells that usually support and nourish their neighboring neurons in the nervous system can become over active in certain diseases”. And that leads to over production of cytokines, immune signals, that are mediators of inflammation,and damage to the nerve cells.
Inflammation protects the body from infection and repairs tissue damage. But uncontrolled levels of inflammation damages healthy by-stander cells, and tissues. When it comes to the repair protein mentioned above, perhaps individuals with ALS, or other neurodegenerative diseases, are attacking this protein, and decreasing the quantities needed for clean-up and repair.
A body in immune homeostasis, immune balance, is unlikely to attack itself. Instead one approach that research should take is finding ways to help the body modulate inappropriate levels of inflammation.