Just what is ALS?

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) was first discovered in 1869 by French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, but remained relatively unknown until 1939 when Major League Baseball player Lou Gehrig’s loss of form was eventually attributed to the early stages of the disease. The ALS induced ending of the career of one of the most beloved baseball players of all time, raised the level of awareness in the disease that is still most closely associated with his name, particularly in North America. In the UK and other parts of the world it is known as Motor Neurone Disease.

Lou Gehrig

Lou Gehrig, a man with more than one legacy. Playing alongside Babe Ruth and later Joe DiMaggio, he set records in baseball that have still not been broken

ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative/neuromuscular disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Nerve cells are called neurons and they extend from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. Nerve cells that are located in the brain, the brain stem and the spinal cord are called motor neurons, and they act as controlling units and communication links between the nervous system and the voluntary muscles of the body.


Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore – home to the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research and the Neurology and Neurosurgery Dept.

In ALS, both the upper motor neurons and the lower motor neurons degenerate or die, and stop sending messages to muscles. Unable to function, the muscles gradually weaken, waste away (atrophy), and have very fine twitches (called fasciculations). Eventually, the ability of the brain to start and control voluntary movement is lost. Patients in the later stages of the disease invariably become totally paralyzed, but the brain continues to function otherwise normally.

ALS has at least 21 variants and although it has no known definitive cause, familial ALS (a hereditary form) occurs in 5%–10% of cases.  Many hypotheses have been formulated about what causes ALS, including chemical exposures, occupational exposure, military service, infectious agents, nutritional intake, physical activity, and trauma. Worldwide, ALS affects white males aged  over 60 years of age more often than any other group.

Neurodegeneration is the umbrella term for the progressive loss of structure or function of neurons including death of neurons. Other neurodegenerative diseases include, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s and all such diseases are incurable, resulting in progressive degeneration and/or death of neuron cells.

You can find out more about ALS here.

You can find out more about ALS research here