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What is ALS and why is the ice bucket challenge making headlines on social media

ALS is a neurological disease that attacks the nerve cells (Neurons) in the brain and the spinal cord.

Written by Durgesh Haridas |
Updated: August 22, 2014 4:47:50 pm
Former Baseball player Pete Frates. (Source: Former Baseball player Pete Frates. (Source:

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also called Lou Gehrig’s disease is a motor neuron disorder. It is a neurological disease that attacks the nerve cells (Neurons) in the brain and the spinal cord. These cells are responsible for controlling voluntary muscles (muscle action we are able to control, like those in the arms, legs and face) action.

ALS is a progressive disease to which there is no known cure or remedy, the exact cause of ALS is also unknown. An ALS patient experiences muscle atrophy (reduction of muscle mass) and loses control over actions such as swallowing, breathing and even speaking.

ALS is the most common motor neuron disorder. The USA has a congressionally mandated registry where people suffering from ALS are required to register themselves, this is done to help scientists learn more about the disease.

What happens in ALS

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People affected  by ALS  face  degeneration of motor neurons, they are no longer able to send impulses to the muscle fibers that are responsible for muscle movement. Early symptoms of ALS are- increasing muscle weakness, especially in the arms and legs, difficulty in speech, swallowing and even breathing.

When the muscles do not receive the messages from the motor neurons, the muscles begin to lose mass and undergo atrophy (become thinner and smaller). Limbs begin to look  thinner and more feeble.

The comparison between a healthy and atrophied muscle affected by ALS. (Source: The comparison between a healthy and atrophied muscle affected by ALS. (Source:

There are no drugs that can heal or treat ALS, but one FDA approved drug Riluzole is known to slow down the progression of the disease and delay its eventualities. People suffering from ALS may not have identical experiences or symptoms, the effect of the disease can be varying and scientist are still collecting data about the many manifestations of the disease.

ALS can affect any part of the body and the atrophy progressively spreads to other parts. Affected people require comprehensive medical attention and a in the latter stages a permanent assistant or help is necessary to assist him/her. ALS patients have to use the Passey-Muir Speaking Valve to speak, as their vocal and thoracic muscles are affected.

The disease came into the limelight in 1987 when three American football players Matt Hazeltine, Bob Waters and Gary Lewis succumbed to ALS. Sports scientists have recently discovered that trauma and head injuries could lead to an ALS like disease. The US Parliament also raised the issue of head injuries that caused concussion and laws to be passed to prevent and treat such injuries in sports and also in the military.

Though ALS is listed as a rare disease it affects more than 100,000 people worldwide and affects people of the 40-60 age group. People of Caucasian origin seem to be affected more than people of other ethnic backgrounds. There have been a rise in cases of ALS in few countries in the West Pacific.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

In an attempt to raise awareness about the rare disease and also help raise charity participants are required to dump a bucket of ice cold water and then dare someone to do the same. If they can’t, the alternative is to donate $100 to the ALS association.

American baseball player and ALS patient Pete Frates is credited to have suggested the idea. His close friend Corey Griffin made the challenge viral and help raise nearly $ 40 Million to date. Griffin sadly drowned in Nantucket on August 16 after a diving accident.

The Ice Bucket Challenge has gone viral on social media over the last few weeks and many famous people like Bill Gates, Satya Nadella, Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Jordan, George W Bush and many others have taken up the challenge and nominated their friends.

Major League Baseball Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Joe Torre participates in the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge outside the organization's headquarters in New York. (Source: AP) Major League Baseball Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Joe Torre participates in the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge. (Source: AP)

US president Barack Obama however, turned down Le Bron James’s challenge and donated to the fund instead. (WATCH VIDEO: Sania Mirza, Yuvraj Singh, Messi, AkshayKumar, Ritesh Deshmukh and other celebrities take the ALS Ice bucket challenge) 

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