This review describes the most common motor neuron disease, ALS. It discusses the diagnosis and evaluation of ALS and the current understanding of its pathophysiology, including new genetic underpinnings of the disease. This article also covers other motor neuron diseases, reviews how to distinguish them from ALS, and discusses their pathophysiology.
In this article, the spectrum of cognitive involvement in ALS, new concepts about protein synthesis pathology in the etiology of ALS, and new genetic associations will be covered. This concept has changed over the past 3 to 4 years with the discovery of new genes and genetic processes that may trigger the disease. As of 2014, two-thirds of familial ALS and 10% of sporadic ALS can be explained by genetics. TAR DNA binding protein 43 kDa (TDP-43), for instance, has been shown to cause frontotemporal dementia as well as some cases of familial ALS, and is associated with frontotemporal dysfunction in ALS.
The anterior horn cells control all voluntary movement: motor activity, respiratory, speech, and swallowing functions are dependent upon signals from the anterior horn cells. Diseases that damage the anterior horn cells, therefore, have a profound impact. Symptoms of anterior horn cell loss (weakness, falling, choking) lead patients to seek medical attention. Neurologists are the most likely practitioners to recognize and diagnose damage or loss of anterior horn cells. ALS, the prototypical motor neuron disease, demonstrates the impact of this class of disorders. ALS and other motor neuron diseases can represent diagnostic challenges. Neurologists are often called upon to serve as a “medical home” for these patients: coordinating care, arranging for durable medical equipment, and leading discussions about end-of-life care with patients and caregivers. It is important for neurologists to be able to identify motor neuron diseases and to evaluate and treat patients affected by them.