Motor neuron disease

Motor Neuron Disease

Motor neuron diseases or motor neurone diseases (MNDs) are a group of rare neurodegenerative disorders that selectively affect motor neurons, the cells which control voluntary muscles of the body. They include amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), progressive bulbar palsy (PBP), pseudobulbar palsy, progressive muscular atrophy (PMA), primary lateral sclerosis (PLS), spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and monomelic amyotrophy (MMA), as well as some rarer variants resembling ALS.

Motor neuron disease
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Specialty Neurology

Motor neuron diseases affect both children and adults. While each motor neuron disease affects patients differently, they all cause movement-related symptoms, mainly muscle weakness.  Most of these diseases seem to occur randomly without known causes, but some forms are inherited. Studies into these inherited forms have led to discoveries of various genes (e.g. SOD1) that are thought to be important in understanding how the disease occurs.

Symptoms of motor neuron diseases can be first seen at birth or can come on slowly later in life. Most of these diseases worsen over time; while some, such as ALS, shorten one’s life expectancy, others do not. Currently, there are no approved treatments for the majority of motor neuron disorders, and care is mostly symptomatic.

Signs and symptoms depend on the specific disease, but motor neuron diseases typically manifest as a group of movement-related symptoms. They come on slowly, and worsen over the course of more than three months. Various patterns of muscle weakness are seen, and muscle cramps and spasms may occur. One can have difficulty breathing with climbing stairs (exertion), difficulty breathing when lying down (orthopnea), or even respiratory failure if breathing muscles become involved. Bulbar symptoms, including difficulty speaking (dysarthria), difficulty swallowing (dysphagia), and excessive saliva production (sialorrhea), can also occur. Sensation, or the ability to feel, is typically not affected. Emotional disturbance (e.g. pseudobulbar affect) and cognitive and behavioural changes (e.g. problems in word fluency, decision-making, and memory) are also seen. There can be lower motor neuron findings (e.g. muscle wasting, muscle twitching), upper motor neuron findings (e.g. brisk reflexes, Babinski reflexHoffman’s reflex, increased muscle tone), or both.

Motor neuron diseases are seen both in children and in adults. Those that affect children tend to be inherited or familial, and their symptoms are either present at birth or appear before learning to walk. Those that affect adults tend to appear after age 40. The clinical course depends on the specific disease, but most progress or worsen over the course of months. Some are fatal (e.g. ALS), while others are not (e.g. PLS).

Patterns of weakness

Various patterns of muscle weakness occur in different motor neuron diseases. Weakness can be symmetric or asymmetric, and it can occur in body parts that are distal, proximal, or both… According to Statland et al., there are three main weakness patterns that are seen in motor neuron diseases, which are:

  1. Asymmetric distal weakness without sensory loss (e.g. ALS, PLS, PMA, MMA)
  2. Symmetric weakness without sensory loss (e.g. PMA, PLS)
  3. Symmetric focal midline proximal weakness (neck, trunk, bulbar involvement; e.g. ALS, PBP, PLS)

Lower and upper motor neuron findings.

Motor neuron diseases are on a spectrum in terms of upper and lower motor neuron involvement. Some have just lower or upper motor neuron findings, while others have a mix of both. Lower motor neuron (LMN) findings include muscle atrophy and fasciculations, and upper motor neuron (UMN) findings include hyperreflexia, spasticity, muscle spasm, and abnormal reflexes.

Pure upper motor neuron diseases, or those with just UMN findings, include PLS.

Pure lower motor neuron diseases, or those with just LMN findings, include PMA.

Motor neuron diseases with both UMN and LMN findings include both familial and sporadic ALS.

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