Understanding Neurodegenerative Diseases - Causes, Symptoms and Future Treatments

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Understanding Neurodegenerative Diseases - Causes, Symptoms and Future Treatments

Neurodegenerative diseases result in the progressive loss and dysfunction of nerve cells. These diseases can affect both motor and cognitive functions, causing debilitating conditions that impact an individual's ability to function independently. Understanding what causes neurodegenerative disease and developing new treatments is paramount to improving quality of life for those impacted.

What Causes Neurodegenerative Disease?

A variety of issues can lead to neurodegenerative disease. Some of the main drivers include:


Genetic factors may predispose certain individuals to neurodegenerative disease. Family history and inheritance patterns indicate genes play a role in some conditions. For example, early onset Alzheimer's disease has been tied to mutations in the APP, PSEN1 and PSEN2 genes. Recent research efforts have tried to identify genetic risk factors that make certain individuals more susceptible.

Protein Misfolding

Abnormal protein folding and aggregation in the brain has been associated with multiple disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. These misfolded proteins form “aggregates” that can become toxic to neurons over time, causing damage and cell death.

Oxidative Stress

The buildup of reactive oxygen species inside cells creates oxidative stress, leading to neuronal injury and dysfunction over time. Combatting oxidative stress with compounds like antioxidants is showing potential for treating disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

What Are the Most Common Neurodegenerative Diseases?

The most prevalent neurodegenerative diseases are:

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) accounts for 60-80% cases of dementia worldwide. Clinically, it causes impairment in memory, thinking and general cognition. As the disease advances brain atrophy becomes more pronounced. While multiple theories exist on the underlying causes, the formation of toxic protein aggregates from amyloid-beta and tau proteins are thought to drive disease progression and neuron death.

Alzheimer's Disease Symptoms

  • Memory loss impacting daily life
  • Difficulty planning or solving problems
  • Confusion about time or place
  • Trouble understanding images and spatial relationships
  • New issues speaking or writing
  • Misplacing items and being unable to retrace steps
  • Poor judgement and changes in mood or personality

Parkinson's Disease

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is the second most common neurodegenerative disease worldwide. It is caused by neuron death in the substantia nigra region of the brain. This leads to dopamine depletion, triggering the characteristic motor symptoms PD is known for. With time, Parkinson’s impacts nerve cells more broadly, causing psychiatric and cognitive issues on top of movement problems.

Parkinson's Disease Symptoms

  • Tremors, especially at rest
  • Rigidity and stiffness of limbs/trunk
  • Slowness of movement
  • Impaired balance and coordination
  • Stooped posture and difficulty walking
  • Small, cramped handwriting

Huntington's Disease

Huntington's disease (HD) is rare compared to other major neurodegenerative diseases. It is fatal genetic disorder, caused by an inherited defect in the huntingtin gene. Huntington's brings about chorea, abnormal involuntary dance-like movements, along with profound cognitive and psychiatric disturbances over time. It impacts muscle coordination, mood, judgment, and memory.

Huntington's Disease Symptoms

  • Jerky, random movements (chorea)
  • Impaired coordination & balance
  • Fidgeting & restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Learning disabilities
  • Irritability & mood shifts
  • Depression & anxiety

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, impacts motor neurons that control voluntary muscle movements. As these cells die, paralysis develops and those impacted lose control over bodily functions like walking, speaking, swallowing and breathing. Riluzole is the main drug available to slow progression, but more therapies are urgently needed.

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Symptoms

  • Muscle weakness in limbs, face or throat
  • Twitching and cramping
  • Difficulty speaking and swallowing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue and tripping/falling

How Are Neurodegenerative Diseases Diagnosed and Treated?

Diagnosing neurodegenerative disease hinges on a complete medical history, physical exam, description of symptoms and select lab tests. Imaging like MRI and CT scans help exclude issues like tumors while showing characteristic patterns of neuronal loss. Genetic tests also aid diagnosis for hereditary conditions like Huntington’s disease.

Treatment focuses on managing symptoms to maintain quality of life and slow down progression. Medications help replace lost neurotransmitters and boost neuronal health. Assistive devices aid physical and occupational therapy. Regular exercise and social engagement help on the cognitive-behavioral front as well.

Promising research identifies novel drug targets like brain inflammation and protein aggregation while gene therapies aim to address root causes of neuronal loss rather than just treating symptoms. However, more work remains to develop treatments that can meaningfully impact disease trajectory.

What Does the Future Hold for Treating Neurodegenerative Disease?

Innovative treatments like immunotherapy, personalized medicine approaches, and neuronal regeneration show promise in fundamentally changing outcomes.


The immune system is proving to play a key role driving inflammation and neuronal loss across disorders like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS. Immunotherapy uses substances that modulate immune function to counteract damaging inflammatory pathways that contribute to progression.

Personalized Medicine

Rather than a universal approach, personalized medicine tailors management using genetic screening and biomarker data. This allows matching treatments to patient subgroups most likely to respond while minimizing unnecessary side effects in non-responders. Personalization will increase efficacy while supporting use of more potent compounds too toxic for general use.

Regenerative Therapies

Technologies enabling neuronal regeneration, like stem cell therapy and tissue engineering, offer hope of not just halting damage but potentially reversing it by replacing lost nerve cells. Significant work remains moving these options from animal models to human application, but they represent compelling long-term prospects for renewal of devastated regions.

The ongoing search to decode neurodegeneration continues on all fronts, spanning basic science to drive foundational understanding as well as practical clinical insights that directly aid those battling these devastating conditions. Advancement requires relentless effort, but the future prospects appear brighter than ever for transforming how we treat and live with neurodegenerative disease.


What are the most common symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases?

Common symptoms include progressive cognitive decline, memory loss, motor impairments like tremors and mobility issues, loss of muscle mass, and trouble with speech and swallowing.

What causes neurodegenerative diseases?

These disorders result from progressive damage and death of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Causes include genetics, abnormal protein aggregation, oxidative stress, and neuroinflammation.

How are neurodegenerative diseases diagnosed?

Diagnosis often involves obtaining medical history, physical neurological exams, imaging tests like MRI, and lab tests. Genetic testing can also confirm hereditary conditions.

What treatments are available for neurodegenerative diseases?

Treatments focus on symptom management via medications, therapy, assistive devices, and lifestyle changes. Research is ongoing into more advanced treatments like stem cell and gene therapy to slow or halt neuronal damage.

Are neurodegenerative diseases curable?

Currently there are no cures for these progressive disorders. However, innovative treatments on the horizon like immunotherapy and neuronal regeneration may eventually enable repair and reversal of damage done.