Do lifestyle and environment play a part in MND?

Do lifestyle and environment play a part in MND?

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This is blog number 3 in our ‘Symposium Blogathon’ – counting down to the 32nd International Symposium on ALS/MND. Numbers in bold green text correspond to the code in the abstract book. Click on the number to be redirected to the full abstract (the page may take a minute to load).

The causes of MND are still not fully understood. Around 90% of people with MND have a sporadic form of the disease – when the disease appears for no apparent reason and with no known familial link. Sporadic MND is thought to be caused by a combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle influences.

Exposure to these factors has been extensively studied. This is known as epidemiology, and this topic will be covered in more detail in blog number four of the ‘Symposium Blogathon’. Epidemiological studies have identified possible links with prior exposure to mechanical and/or electrical trauma, military service, high levels of physical activity, agricultural chemicals and a variety of heavy metals. However, these are only suspected contributory risk factors and the evidence from studies is often circumstantial and offers no clear conclusions.

Understanding the causes and mechanisms of motor neuron degeneration is essential to the development of new treatments. Only by understanding what goes wrong in MND can scientists identify potential drug targets and other therapies.

Considering that a significant proportion of adult life is spent at work, identifying occupations and work-related exposures could help to detect factors that increase MND risk. This process may be further aided in populations that are relatively isolated due to environmental and genetic homogeneity – that is, being all the same or all of the same kind. The island of Malta is home to a geographically and culturally isolated population, and researchers here investigated occupations and occupational exposures potentially associated with MND risk in its population.

People with MND were matched with controls (1:1). 73.7% of people with MND reported a blue-collar job (manual labour, typically in agriculture, manufacturing and construction) as their main occupation compared to 44.4% of controls. Further analysis found that occupations such as carpentry and construction were found to be positively associated with MND, particularly bulbar onset-MND. Additionally, people with MND reported a significantly higher exposure to work-related strenuous physical activity (EPI-10).

Blog series
Physical exercise collection of blog articles

Age is a major factor for all neurodegenerative disorders, and familial MND cases have been associated with a marked deviation from normal brain ageing years before symptom onset. If presymptomatic screening for MND in large populations is to ever become a reality, it is important to understand if MND arises as an entirely distinct process or reflects an exaggeration of certain aspects of natural ageing of the motor systems, as seen in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

In this studied, part-funded by the MND Association, researchers from the University of Oxford used data from the UK Biobank to understand more specifically how brain motor system components vary across ages in a large population (40,481 individual data sets) (EPI-12).

What is the UK Biobank?

UK Biobank is a large-scale biomedical database and research resource, containing in-depth genetic and health information from half a million UK participants. The database is regularly augmented with additional data and is globally accessible to approved researchers undertaking vital research into the most common and life-threatening diseases. It is a major contributor to the advancement of modern medicine and treatment and has enabled several scientific discoveries that improve human health.

Observational studies have suggested a possible relationship between blood pressure (BP) and MND. In their study, researchers in China aimed to determine if there is a relationship between these two and the effect of antihypertension (high BP) drugs on MND.

They found that genetically determined increased systolic blood pressure – the pressure when your heart pushes blood out – was a risk factor for MND. Increased diastolic blood pressure – the pressure when your heart rests between beats – may be a protective factor for MND.

Use of calcium channel blocker, a common antihypertension drug, indicated a protective effect on MND in this study and may play a potential role in the management of MND (EPI-16).

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Take a look at the schedule of blogs for November as we continue counting down to the 32nd International Symposium on ALS/MND with our ‘Symposium Blogathon’.

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