New Study Establishes Link Between Strenuous Exercise and Motor-Neuron Disease

January 06, 2022, Kitchener, Ontario

Posted by: Robert Deutschmann, Personal Injury Lawyer

Researchers have known for some time that motor neuron disease is more common in professional athletes than in the general population. A new study gives clues as to why. Motor neuron disease like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) is a terrible affliction that kills the motor neurons in the brain. These motor neurons control voluntary’ muscular activity like moving, speaking, eating and breathing.


What is ALS


ALS is a fatal disease that sees most individuals die within 3-5 years of diagnosis. There are no treatments to halt the disease, and the end is particularly grim for people whose minds are still active but their ability to breathe, eat and move ends.


What is the link between exercise and ALS?


About 10% of motor neuron disease is inherited but others seem to appear without a known cause. Scientists have noted that strenuous exercise seems to be linked to the disease as athletes and armed forces members have rates of the disease far higher than other individuals. A recent paper in EBioMedicine supports the hypothesis.


The research from Sheffield University was based on data from the UK Biobank which holds information on about 500,000 peoples’ genetic, health and lifestyle data. They found that people with specific genes who engage in regular strenuous exercise were more likely to develop ALS.


Researchers then went on to determine how exercise may damage neurons by taking blood samples from people before and after periods of physical activity. They measured gene-regulating chemicals known to be associated with ALS. Findings show that almost half of the genes changed their activity in response to the exercise.


The research also showed that the higher the levels of a certain gene known to be associated with ALS C9ORF72 that people had the earlier those people developed ALS. 


The study suggests that:


[there is] a positive causal relationship between ALS and physical exercise. Exercise is likely to cause motor neuron injury only in patients with a risk-genotype. Consistent with this we have shown that ALS risk genes are activated in response to exercise. In particular, we propose that G4C2-repeat expansion of C9ORF72 predisposes to exercise-induced ALS.


The link between degenerative brain disease and TBI/concussions has already been well established for athletes. This is further news that suggests that careful screening and monitoring of athletes is warranted.


You can read the entire study in EBioMedicine published by The Lancet here.


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