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How ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) Works


ALS Treatment
The famous bassist Charles Mingus was diagnosed with ALS in 1977.
The famous bassist Charles Mingus was diagnosed with ALS in 1977.
Leni Sinclair/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Today there's no cure for ALS, but researchers are working in that direction. In the meantime, treatments are available to relieve symptoms and improve patients’ quality of life. One of the main therapies focuses on the chemical messenger, glutamate, which ALS patients produce in excess. The drug riluzole (marketed under the brand name Rilutek) decreases the release of glutamate to prevent it from damaging motor neurons. Although it can’t reverse the course of the disease, Rilutek can slow it down, and it has been shown in scientific studies to help ALS patients live for a few months longer than they would otherwise. Other medications help manage the symptoms of ALS -- for example, drugs that treat fatigue, muscle cramps, pain and sleep problems.

Other therapies that can help ALS patients include physical therapy and exercise such as walking, biking and swimming to improve strength and mobility in the unaffected muscles. A walker, brace or wheelchair can help people get around once they're no longer able to walk on their own. And a speech therapist can teach patients techniques to help them speak more clearly.

In some people with ALS, the disease simply stops progressing. It just “burns out.” Doctors don’t know why this happens.

Researchers are always looking for new ways to prevent and combat ALS. Here are a few of the breakthroughs on the horizon:

Researchers are looking for more genes that cause the disease, as well as the factors that cause motor neurons to die.

Scientists are testing out various substances in patients with ALS, including the enzyme SOD1, antioxidants and neurotrophic factors (chemicals in the brain and spinal cord that help neurons develop and protect them). Drugs that might one day be used to treat ALS include the antibiotic minocycline (Minocin), the breast cancer drug tamoxifen, and the antioxidant coenzyme Q10.

Stem cells are another active area in ALS research. In 2008, scientists were able to reprogram stem cells so that they formed healthy motor neurons. They took the cells from the skin of an 82-year-old woman and her 89-year-old sister, both of whom had the SOD1 gene mutation. Scientists hope they might one day be able to use stem cells to replace damaged motor neurons in ALS patients.