Motor Neuron Disease: Its Symptoms & Treatments

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Get Ahead of Motor Neuron Disease! Know the Symptoms, Types, and Treatment


Motor Neuron Disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder caused by the loss of brain cells called neurons. MND affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control muscle movement. These nerve cells are called motor neurons. Motor neurons transmit messages between the brain and muscles. Motor Neuron Disease can affect people at any age and may cause weakness, numbness, trouble speaking or swallowing, mood changes, difficulty walking, and problems moving around (decreased coordination).

MND symptoms may not show up until many years after its initial onset. However, early detection should lead to treatment. That’s what researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine have discovered. Their study shows that it takes around six months before MND symptoms start to appear, and once they do, it only lasts about three months before the disease hits full force – leaving sufferers little time to seek treatment.

What Causes Motor Neuron Disease?

The exact cause of MND isn’t known, however, researchers believe genetics and environmental factors play a role. There have been some studies that suggest MND runs in families. People who have a family member diagnosed with MND are about twice as likely to get the condition themselves than those without a family history. Environmental factors could include certain toxic chemicals, viruses, pesticides, heavy metals, poor nutrition, physical trauma, and other toxins. Scientists think these factors might trigger inflammation and damage brain cells that produce neurotransmitters called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine helps send signals from one area of the brain to another. Without enough acetylcholine, the patient becomes unable to move his/her body properly.

Symptoms of MND


People with MND first start experiencing symptoms between 40 and 50 years old; however, many patients may not experience their full symptomatology until they reach middle age. Symptoms often worsen over time and can last long after death occurs. In general, MND begins slowly and worsens over several months. Early symptoms of MND may include:

  • Difficulty walking
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of balance (proprioception)
  • Muscle twitching
  • Fatigue
  • Losing bladder or bowel control

MND Diagnosis

There’s no test to diagnose MND, but doctors can look for telltale signs including abnormal reflexes, muscle wasting, and tremors. Doctors will need a medical history and conduct a neurological exam to make sure the person doesn’t have another problem that would explain the symptoms instead of MND. An MRI scan, blood tests, and a CSF drain (a procedure where doctors put a thin tube down the back of a person’s neck to collect fluid) may help rule out other conditions causing similar symptoms.

Get to Know Motor Neuron Disease: The Types, and Treatment


  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS): Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder characterized by muscle weakness and atrophy caused by degeneration of motor neurons. ALS affects both upper and lower motor neurons, resulting in paralysis and death. Symptoms may appear gradually over months or years, or they may develop rapidly. There is no cure for ALS.
  • Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA): Spinal muscular atrophies (SMAs) are a group of genetic disorders affecting voluntary muscles. These conditions cause progressive loss of muscle mass and function due to the degeneration of anterior horn cells in the spinal cord. SMAs have two types: type 1 (or Werdnig-Hoffmann disease) and type 2 (or Kennedy’s disease). Type 1 occurs before age 5, while type 2 begins after age 25. Both types affect only skeletal muscles.
  • Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP): Progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) is a rare neurological condition that causes problems with balance and coordination. PSP symptoms begin slowly and worsen over time. People with PSP often experience difficulty walking, swallowing, speaking, and thinking. Other symptoms include personality changes, depression, dementia, and sleep disturbances.
  • Huntington’s Disease (HD): Huntington’s disease (HD) is a hereditary brain disorder that causes uncontrollable movements and behavioral changes. HD symptoms start early in adulthood and progress until death. Most people with HD die between 10 and 20 years after their first symptoms appear.
  • Machado-Joseph Disease (MJD): Machado-Joseph disease (MJD) is a fatal inherited neurometabolic disorder that primarily affects the nervous system. MJD is caused by mutations in the gene encoding for the protein huntingtin. MJD patients exhibit movement abnormalities, cognitive decline, psychiatric manifestations, and premature aging.
  • Multiple System Atrophy (MSA): Multiple system atrophy (MSA) is a progressive, adult-onset disorder that involves several parts of the central nervous system. MSA symptoms include muscle stiffness, tremors, slurred speech, poor balance, shuffling gait, and impaired vision. Death usually results from respiratory failure.
  • Dementia With Lewy Bodies (DLB): Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) is a chronic, progressive, neurodegenerative disorder that causes memory impairment and confusion. DLB symptoms include hallucinations, delusions, and sleep disturbance. As the disease progresses, patients lose their sense of smell and taste.

Early Detection of Motor Neuron Disease Symptoms Can Lead to Treatment


Treatment options vary depending on the type of MND. In some cases, patients receive symptomatic care only. Others undergo surgical procedures to remove damaged spinal cord tissue. Still, others take medications to slow down the progression of their condition. Motor neuron disease symptoms often begin slowly and gradually worsen over time. Unfortunately, many people do not realize they have MND until their condition becomes severe enough to interfere with daily activities. If you notice any of these early warning signs, contact your doctor immediately.

Early Diagnosis Leads to Better Outcomes

Symptoms of motor neuron diseases may vary depending on the type of MND. In some cases, patients experience muscle weakness. Other symptoms include difficulty swallowing, slurred speech, and loss of balance. As the disease progresses, patients may lose control of their arms and legs, become unable to walk, and eventually require assistance breathing. Patients who develop MND at younger ages tend to have milder symptoms than those diagnosed later in life. However, the earlier a patient receives treatment, the greater chance he or she has of recovering fully.

Early Treatment May Improve Quality of Life

If you suspect you might have MND, visit your physician right away. Your doctor may perform tests to determine if you have ALS, progressive muscular atrophy, or primary lateral sclerosis. These conditions share similar symptoms, including muscle weakness, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Once you have MND, your doctor may recommend physical therapy, medication, and/or surgery to help manage your symptoms.

Treatment options


There are two types of treatments for MND: palliative care and supportive care. Palliative care focuses on symptom management while supporting patients’ quality of life. Patients who receive palliative care tend to experience fewer complications than those receiving supportive care alone. Supportive care includes activities designed to improve function and mobility. These activities include occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, and respiratory therapy.

Final things you should know,

What are motor neuron diseases?

Motor neuron disease (MND) is a group of rare progressive neurodegenerative disorders characterized primarily by muscle weakness and wasting, leading to death due to respiratory failure. MND includes amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), primary lateral sclerosis (PLS), progressive bulbar palsy (PBP), progressive muscular atrophy (PMA), and multisystem atrophy (MSA).

Why should we know about them?

If left undetected, these diseases cause significant disability and loss of independence and lead to premature death. Early detection of symptoms may allow for early treatment and improved quality of life.

How do we detect them?

Symptoms of MND vary depending upon the type of MND. In PLS, patients experience difficulty swallowing and speaking; in ALS, they develop difficulty breathing and have trouble walking; and in PMA, they experience shortness of breath and fatigue. Patients with MND often lose their sense of taste and smell and experience changes in bowel and bladder function. These neurological symptoms occur over many years before the onset of physical symptoms, making diagnosis difficult.

When is screening recommended?

Screening is recommended if there is a known history of MND in family members or close relatives, including first-degree relatives—children, siblings, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, nieces, and nephews. If someone is diagnosed with MND, he or she should seek genetic counseling and testing for mutations in SOD1, TDP43, FUS/TUBA4A, C9ORF72, and VCP. Genetic testing is not yet widely done at public hospitals.

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