Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also referred to as motor neurone disease, is a fatal neurological disease that is characterized clinically by progressive muscle weakness, muscle atrophy, and eventual paralysis. The neuropathology of ALS is primary degeneration of upper (motor cortical) and lower (brainstem and spinal) motor neurons. The amyotrophy refers to the neurogenic atrophy of affected muscle groups, and the lateral sclerosis refers to the hardening of the lateral white matter funiculus in spinal cord (corresponding to degeneration of the corticospinal tract) found at autopsy. Because the mechanisms for the motor neuron degeneration in ALS are not understood, this disease has no precisely known causes and no effective treatments. Very recent studies have identified that the degeneration of motor neurons in ALS is a form of apoptotic cell death that may occur by an abnormal programmed cell death (PCD) mechanism. In order to treat ALS effectively, we need to understand the mechanisms for motor neuron apoptosis more completely. Future studies need to further identify the signals for PCD activation in neurons as they relate to the pathogenesis of ALS and to clarify the molecular pathways leading to motor neuron apoptosis in animal and cell culture model systems. These studies should lead to a better understanding of motor neuron death and to the design of new therapeutic experiments critical for the future treatment of ALS.
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