What is ALS?

What is ALS? It is the medical name for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease – a fatal disease of the spinal cord and brain which strikes approximately 5,000 Americans every year (m 40,000 per year, worldwide). Europeans typically refer to it as Motor Neuron Disease (MND), and one of the most famous Europeans – the British physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking has been afflicted with it since the mid-1960’s. Dr. Hawking is one of a very few individuals to have survived for so long with ALS/MND; most victims of this terrible disease are not so fortunate. ALS, or MND, results from the death of a specific type of nerve cells in the spinal cord called motor neurons. These neurons send out single “wires”, or axons to virtually every muscle in the body, and allow us to exert voluntary control over the movement of those muscles. The axons connecting spinal motor neurons to fingers and toes are up to three feet long, and this is what makes motor nerves unique; if the nerve cell were blown up to the size of a golf ball, then its wire would be 1 1/2 miles long! As the nerves are lost, we lose the ability to move those muscles, and they quickly begin to shrink, or atrophy. Although there are many variations, ALS typically begins as weakness in an arm or a leg, and slowly progresses to the other arm or leg, and then moves up the body to the nerves that control chewing, swallowing, and breathing. ultimately, ALS victims lose all ability to move, and require mechanical ventilators just to breath. The virus that causes polio targets the same neurons as ALS, but individuals who survive the initial infection with polio generally live a normal lifespan. Unlike polio, once ALS begins, it continues to progress until all spinal motor neurons are lost.


At the J. Thomas May Center for ALS Research, we are dedicated to understanding the causes of ALS, but we understand that it will take time, and we are not waiting until then to find a treatment. Our goal is find new treatments and get them to patients as quickly as possible, hence the subtitle of our Center, ‘Focusing on Translational Medicine”. We are actively testing dozens of combinations of FDA-approved drugs and nutraceuticals, in the hope that anything we find could be taken to the clinic and used to treat ALS patients in the shortest time possible.