New Findings Suggest Lou Gehrig Had a Different Illness
(Aug. 17) -- Katie Drummond AOL -- Researchers have discovered a shocking twist in their exploration of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, after the prominent New York Yankee pro-baseball player who was diagnosed with it back in 1939.
As it turns out, Gehrig, and other athletes like him, might not have been afflicted by ALS in the first place. Rather, men who suffered ongoing concussive trauma might have died from degradation to the central nervous system caused by that damage.
Just how did the new findings come about, and what do they mean for ALS diagnoses going forward? Surge Desk explains.
What is ALS?
A progressive, incurable motor neuron condition that's also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. ALS causes muscles throughout the body to weaken and atrophy, leaving patients unable to chew, walk or even use their limbs, but leaves cognitive function intact. The ALS Association estimates that 30,000 Americans, mostly older men, suffer from the untreatable illness.
ALS seems, in some cases, to have a genetic component. But around 90 percent of cases appear without family linkage, and a primary causative factor remains unknown.
What did the new research determine?
A team of researchers at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the Boston University School of Medicine performed autopsies on three men -- two football players and one boxer -- who'd apparently died of Lou Gehrig's disease.
Proteins found in the spinal columns of all three suggest that the men were suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition linked to head injuries and characterized by cognitive decline and dementia.
The finding, to be published Wednesday in the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology, suggests that CTE might spur the development of Lou Gehrig's disease among athletes. Football players and military personnel, both of whom are more likely to be exposed to concussions, succumb to Lou Gherig's more often than the average civilian.
Or it's possible that athletes and vets diagnosed with ALS never even had it -- rather, they suffered from central nervous system damage caused by the concussive trauma.
What's Lou Gehrig got to do with it?
Most notably, that the man -- who died in 1941 -- might not have had the very illness that today bears his name.
A longtime athlete who played college football before his Hall of Fame-worthy baseball career, Gehrig had a history of concussive injuries. The paper doesn't discuss his case specifically, but the implications of the new findings mean he might not have suffered from his namesake condition.
"Here he is, the face of his disease, and he may have had a different disease as a result of his athletic experience," Dr. Ann McKee, the study's lead neuropathologist, told The New York Times.
What's the fallout from this new distinction?
More effective diagnosis and, maybe, treatment for athletes and veterans who have the concussion-related condition characterized by these key spinal proteins.
"People are being misdiagnosed clinically while they're alive as having ALS when in fact they have a different motor-neuron disease," Dr. Robert Stern, co-director of Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, told the Times. "Scientists will be able to get at a faster understanding of the disease in general, and therefore effective treatments, by knowing more about who's at risk and who's not."