Everyone knows that ALS is a very bad disease, an awareness underscored by the recent Ice Bucket Challenge. The death of neurons that results in paralysis can be caused by specific genetic mutations. But in most cases, single genes are not the culprit. So researchers have looked for other risk factors that might play a role.
Studies have tagged cigarette smoking as a definite danger. Alcohol, another plausible suspect, has yielded equivocal results in previous investigations. To get a better read on ethanol (some earlier studies were small), researchers from Sweden’s Lund University looked at giant medical registries from that country, compiled at various times between 1973 and 2010.
They found that individuals who were classified as problem drinkers were a little more than half as likely to be diagnosed with ALS as those who didn't have “alcohol use disorder.” More than 420,000 problem drinkers were registered during the period surveyed—and there were 7965 patients who received an ALS diagnosis.
The study, just reported in The European Journal of Neurology, controlled for gender, education and place of birth, among other factors. But it was unable to tell why drinking might help. It did lead, though, to a number of intriguing speculations. The researchers cited studies in rats, done by other groups, that indicated that ingestion of alcohol decreased the number of brain cells called astrocytes that bore high levels of a certain protein linked to the pathology of ALS.
Another obvious question is how Bud Lights or a Johnny Walker Black on the rocks might be prescribed as preventive therapies. The researchers wondered whether an individual with a gene that causes ALS might help fend off the disease by imbibing.
As always, the more-research-is-needed mantra resonates. Further investigations would be worthwhile, though. There is only one approved drug for ALS, and it only buys patients an additional three to six months. If wine, beer or spirits could help with prevention—even in the small number of patients with familial mutations—it might be worth a shot, or three.
Update: A site called ALS Advocacy responded to this post with a great tweet, included here:
"People who have struggled with alcoholism may not have ALS diagnosed promptly or at all. Slurred speech. Stumbling. Will doc look for ALS?"
Image Source: Gargolla