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J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2001 Oct;71(4):478-81.

Normal complement of motor units in asymptomatic familial (SOD1 mutation) amyotrophic lateral sclerosis carriers.

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  • 1Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, ANZAC Research Institute, Concord Hospital, NSW, Australia 2139.



To understand the mechanisms causing neuronal death in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), an electrophysiological technique of motor unit number estimation (MUNE) was used to examine the pattern of motor neuron loss in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The aim was to determine whether gradual lifelong loss of motor units precedes clinical disease or whether sudden, catastrophic loss of motor units occurs at the onset of the disease.


Using the statistical technique of motor unit number estimation, a cross sectional study was performed on a group of asymptomatic carriers of the Cu, Zn superoxide dimutase 1 (SOD1) gene. MUNE results were compared with those from age and sex matched family controls who did not carry the SOD1 mutation. A total of 87 subjects (45 men and 42 women) with an age range from 16-73 years of age were studied.


There was no detectable difference in the number of motor units in SOD1 mutation carriers compared with SOD1 negative family controls or population controls. Symptomatic subjects showed a definite loss of motor units. The test-retest reproducibility of this technique yielded an average difference between MUNE results on separate occasions on the same subject of +/-5%.


The finding that presymptomatic SOD1 mutation carriers have a full complement of motor neurons indicates that mutation carriers must have normal survival of motor neurons until rapid and widespread cell death of these neurons occurs, coinciding with the onset of clinical features. This implies that symptomatic ALS is not the end result of a slow attrition of motor neurons.

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