Retroviruses and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis

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Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive, invariably fatal neurologic disorder resulting from upper and lower motor neuron degeneration, which typically develops during the sixth or seventh decade of life, and is diagnosed based on standard clinical criteria. Its underlying cause remains undetermined. The disease may occur with increased frequency within certain families, often in association with specific genomic mutations, while some sporadic cases have been linked to environmental toxins or trauma. Another possibility, first proposed in the 1970s, is that retroviruses play a role in pathogenesis. In this paper, we review the published literature for evidence that ALS is associated either with infection by an exogenous retrovirus or with the expression of human endogenous retroviral (HERV) sequences in cells of the central nervous system. A small percentage of persons infected with the human immunodeficiency virus-1 (HIV-1) or human T cell leukemia virus-1 (HTLV-1) develop ALS-like syndromes. While HTLV-1 associated ALS-like syndrome has several features that may distinguish it from classical ALS, HIV-infected patients may develop neurological manifestations that resemble classical ALS although it occurs at a younger age and they may show a dramatic improvement following the initiation of antiretroviral therapy. However, most patients with probable or definite ALS show no evidence of HIV-1 or HTLV-1 infection. In contrast, recent reports have shown a stronger association with HERV, as analysis of serum samples, and postmortem brain tissue from a number of patients with a classical ALS has revealed significantly increased expression of HERV-K, compared to controls. These findings suggest that endogenous retroviral elements are involved in the pathophysiology of ALS, but there is no evidence that they are the primary cause of the syndrome.

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