Motor neurone disease (MND) is the name given to a group of related diseases affecting the motor neurones in the brain and spinal cord. Motor neurones are those nerve cells that control muscles, and their degeneration leads to weakness and wasting of muscles. Such wasting generally occurs in arms or legs initially, with some groups of muscles being affected more than others. Some people with a particular type of MND may develop weakness and wasting in the muscles supplying the face and throat, with the consequent problems of thick speech and difficulty chewing and swallowing.
MND does not affect touch, taste, sight, smell and hearing, nor directly the bladder, bowel or sexual function. In addition, in the vast majority of cases, the intellect will remain unaffected.
MND is generally a steadily progressive disease over a period of time, but the rate of progression varies greatly from one person to another.
How many people get MND?
Approximately one in 50,000 people will develop MND in any one year, with over 5,000 people in the UK affected at any one time. It is an illness of adulthood, generally affecting people over the age of 50. Men are affected slightly more than women.
How is MND diagnosed?
There is no specific test for MND and, because the symptoms vary in different people, it may be difficult to diagnose with certainty in the early stages of the disease. In addition, the symptoms may be similar to those seen in other conditions making diagnosis of MND more difficult. The neurologist (who usually makes the diagnosis) will probably carry out a number of specialised tests in order to eliminate other conditions as well as giving the person with MND a thorough physical examination in order to confirm the diagnosis.
What causes MND?
In around a tenth of cases of MND, there is a family history of the disease suggesting that genetic factors may be involved. This type of disease is referred to as 'familial MND'. However, in most cases of the MND, there is no family history of the disease and there does not seem to be any apparent reason for it to occur - this type of disease is referred to as 'sporadic MND'. Despite much research, the cause of sporadic MND is still unknown. Various causes have been proposed, including environmental factors such as pesticides, heavy metals, organic solvents and viral infection, but the evidence for these remain, at best, circumstantial.
Research into the disease, some funded by the MND Association, is ongoing.
What help is available?
As yet there is no specific treatment that will stop the progress of MND although there are some promising lines of research, and at least one drug which has a modest benefit on progression of the disease. However, many of the symptoms and subsequent problems can be effectively alleviated by your consultant or GP. In addition, other professionals, such as the physiotherapist, occupational therapist, nurse, social worker, speech and language therapist, and dietitian, can be an invaluable source of help. A range of leaflets dealing with specific problem areas is available from the MND Association on request.
Further information available from:
Motor Neurone Disease Association
PO Box 246
Tel: 01604 250505
Helpline: 08457 626262
(Open from 9am to 5pm and from 7pm to 10.30pm, Monday to Friday, and from 10am - 6pm at weekends)
Fact sheet written by the Motor Neurone Disease Association and provided by MIMS.
Date of preparation: 1999