Can a Nerve Injury Trigger ALS?

Summary: A new study reveals peripheral nerve damage may trigger the onset and spread of ALS in mouse models of the neurodegenerative disease.

Source: University of Illinois.

A growing collection of anecdotal stories raises the possibility that nerve injury in an arm or a leg can act as a trigger for the development amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS — a progressive neurodegenerative disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the famous New York Yankee who died of it in 1941.

The connection between ALS and athletes runs deeper than a single ballplayer; people who engage in intense physical activities, such as professional athletes and people in the military, are more likely to be affected by ALS. In some, the disease seems to start after an injury — muscle weakness at the site of the injury slowly spreads to new areas until weakness in the muscles responsible for breathing causes suffocation.

Now, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago are the first to demonstrate that a peripheral nerve injury can trigger the onset and spread of the disease in an animal model of ALS. Their findings, published in the journal Neurobiology of Disease, show that rats genetically engineered to develop ALS-like symptoms have an abnormal inflammatory response in the region of the spinal cord associated with an injured peripheral neuron. As the spinal cord inflammation and other damaging processes spread, they cause progressive muscle weakness throughout the body.

“We know that in some patients with ALS the weakness starts in a hand or leg, and the disease spreads. Coincidentally, the patient will describe a recent or remote injury to that same hand or leg that matches the location of their disease onset. We wanted to study how environmental contributions, such as a focal nerve injury, affects how the ALS starts and spreads,” said Dr. Jeffery Loeb, the John S. Garvin Endowed Chair in Neurology and Rehabilitation in the UIC College of Medicine and corresponding author of the paper.

“Our results show that a single nerve injury, which is small enough that it only causes temporary weakness in normal animals, can start a cascade of inflammation in the spinal cord that initiates and causes the disease to spread in genetically-susceptible animals,” said Loeb. “The ability to precipitate the disease through injury gives us a new animal model we can use to identify treatments for ALS that focus on stopping the spread of the disease after it first starts. The medical community has no therapies that significantly slow or stop the progression of the disease and we are currently putting all of our efforts on developing a drug to do this.”

While a growing number of genes have been associated with the development of ALS, only about 10 percent of ALS patients have one or more of these gene mutations and none can explain why the disease presents with localized weakness or how it spreads. Ninety percent of ALS patients develop the disease for unknown reasons.

“This raises an important question of the relative contributions of environment versus genes or nature versus nurture,” Loeb said.

One of the most highly-studied gene mutations in ALS is in a gene called SOD1. In their study, Loeb and colleagues used rats with mutated forms of the SOD1 gene, which causes the animals to have higher levels of the SOD1 enzyme and to develop ALS-like symptoms, including progressive muscle weakness, starting at 15 weeks of age.

The researchers surgically injured a single nerve in the leg of both SOD1 and wild-type rats at 10 weeks of age. While all rats had reduced strength in the injured leg post-surgery, the wild-type rats recovered almost completely within a few weeks. The SOD1 rats never returned to normal and also experienced weakness in their other leg.

They also found that surgically-injured rats had elevated and prolonged inflammation, and higher numbers of microglia and astrocyte cells in areas of the spinal cord associated with the injured neuron, and the inflammation and presence of these other cells spread to adjacent neurons.

While a growing number of genes have been associated with the development of ALS, only about 10 percent of ALS patients have one or more of these gene mutations and none can explain why the disease presents with localized weakness or how it spreads. Ninety percent of ALS patients develop the disease for unknown reasons. image is in the public domain.

“This spread of inflammation could potentially explain how the disease spreads once it first starts from the site of injury,” Loeb said. “Microglia have many roles, but one role is to prune or eliminate synapses that connect one nerve cell to another. These connections are critical for normal functioning and for survival of neurons during development. Where there was increased inflammation and microglia in the spinal cord, we saw up to a two-fold reduction in the number of synapses.”

Loeb explained that once a nerve loses connections with its neighbors, the neighboring cells tend to die off.

“This chain reaction of cell death could be what causes the progressive spread of muscle weakness we see in ALS,” Loeb said.

About this neuroscience research article

Sarah Schram and Fei Song from the UIC College of Medicine department of neurology and rehabilitation and Dr. Donald Chuang, Greg Schmidt, Dr. Hristo Piponov, Cory Helder, James Kerns and Dr. Mark Gonzales from the UIC College of Medicine department of orthopedics are co-authors on the paper.

Funding: This research was supported in part by the Patrick Grange Memorial Foundation, which was founded in 2013 in honor of Patrick Grange, a former NCAA Division I soccer player at the UIC.

Source: Sharon Parmet – University of Illinois
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Abstract for “Mutant SOD1 prevents normal functional recovery through enhanced glial activation and loss of motor neuron innervation after peripheral nerve injury” by Sarah Schram, Donald Chuang, Greg Schmidt, Hristo Piponov, Cory Helder, James Kerns, Mark Gonzalez, Fei Song, and Jeffrey A. Loeb in Neurobiology of Disease. Published February 20 2019.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]University of Illinois”Can a Nerve Injury Trigger ALS?.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 20 February 2019.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]University of Illinois(2019, February 20). Can a Nerve Injury Trigger ALS?. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved February 20, 2019 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]University of Illinois”Can a Nerve Injury Trigger ALS?.” (accessed February 20, 2019).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Mutant SOD1 prevents normal functional recovery through enhanced glial activation and loss of motor neuron innervation after peripheral nerve injury

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is poorly understood with no effective therapeutics. One long entertained observation is that ALS may be precipitated focally by nerve injury. Many patients with ALS are athletes or veterans, and some have suffered nerve injuries at the site where ALS first presents. Here we explore how a genetic SOD1 mutation alters the inflammatory response and affects functional recovery after an environmental insult in a rat model.

Unilateral sciatic nerve crush injuries were performed in SOD1 G93A rats prior to disease symptom onset. Functional recovery was compared between injured wild-type littermates and uninjured SOD1 rats. Spinal cord tissues were analyzed quantitatively for SOD1 expression, glial reactivity, and motor neuron synaptic integrity.

Injured SOD1 rats failed to recover and showed hastened functional decline with decreased survival. Injury induced extracellular SOD1 expression was associated with heightened, prolonged microglial and astrogial activation in the ventral horn. This inflammatory response spread to uninjured motor neuron pools and was associated with increased motor neuron synaptic loss.

This study identified a relationship between genetic and environmental contributions to disease onset and progression in ALS. The findings suggest that injury induced SOD1 mutant protein induces a heightened and prolonged inflammatory response resulting in motor neuron degeneration through synaptic loss. Once initiated, this process spreads to adjacent motor neurons leading to contiguous spread of the disease. Treatments that suppress this heightened glial response could slow disease progression in ALS patients with focal sites of disease onset.

Significance statement
The contribution of environmental factors such as peripheral nerve insults in ALS is not well understood. Here we examined the effect of a single sciatic nerve injury in SOD1 (G93A) rats to explore the contribution of this environmental insult on disease onset and progression. After the injury, SOD1 animals failed to recover and had a more rapid functional decline. Histopathologically, SOD1 animals had heightened SOD1 expression, microglial and astroglial responses, and a reduction of motor neuron innervation. Taken together, these results provide a plausible mechanism of how the SOD1 mutated protein promotes an abnormal response to injury that leads to neurodegenerative changes in an ALS model that is amenable to therapeutic testing.

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