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Understanding ALS

What is ALS?

ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, attacks cells in the brain and spinal cord that carry messages from your brain to your muscles. These cells are called motor neurons.

The “A” in ALS stands for amyotrophic, which translates literally from the Greek language as “no muscle nourishment.” “L” refers to lateral, or the areas in a person’s spinal cord where their motor neurons are located.

As the motor neurons degenerate and die, it leads to scarring — or sclerosis — in the spinal cord and brain — and the brain can no longer control muscle movement. When the muscles go unused, they atrophy, or waste away. This is when the symptoms of ALS, like the loss of ability to speak, eat, move, and breathe, begin to appear.

ALS tends to only affect motor neurons that control voluntary movement, like reaching to pick up a phone or stepping off a curb. Involuntary movements, such as blinking and bladder control, are generally not affected.