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ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, may be caused by leaky blood vessels that lose their ability to protect the spinal cord from toxins.

Berislav Zlokovic, MD, PhD, University of Rochester Medical Center, has developed over the last 15 years a view that the vascular system plays a central role in many neurodegenerative diseases caused by a breakdown in the barriers between the blood and the central nervous system and a likely cause in diseases like Alzheimer’s, ALS, and multiple sclerosis (MS).

The barrier between the blood and the spinal cord is an elaborate – lattice that   the insides of blood vessels that weave throughout the spinal cord. The lattice barrier  which molecules can cross from the blood to the neurons in the spinal cord. Oxygen and many nutrients pass through the barrier.

Researchers found that mutation in the key building blocks of the barrier have mutation in gene SOD-1. Essentially, the mutations loosen the lattice and allow molecular interlopers to pass from the blood to the spinal cord.

A weakened barrier can bring several problems. Neurons exposed to biochemical byproducts of hemoglobin (which forms reactive oxygen molecules) injure neurons. Where the barrier had weakened, tiny hemorrhages dotted the spinal column. Further research is needed to determine if the same processes happen in forms of ALS that are not inherited.

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