Degenerative brain disorders range from those that are swift and devastating to those that only manifest slight disability after several years. They can be caused by a number of conditions. A rare but devastating disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease occurs when proteins called prions cause other proteins to fold abnormally, leading to a rapid decline in movement and mental functioning. Its new variant form is also known as Mad Cow disease; however, most sufferers have the classic variety which has no known cause, and is not related to tainted beef.
Multiple sclerosis randomly destroys the myelin sheaths that help axons transmit signals from one neuron to another. The brain, optic nerves and spinal cord can all be targeted. Temporary or permanent loss of motor or visual functioning can result from this disease. However, doctors are finding success with various steroid treatments, allowing many patients to function quite well for years.
Several other conditions can also be the cause of degenerative brain damage. Huntington’s Chorea is a rare hereditary condition that is devastating in its symptoms of motor disorders, loss of mental functioning, and psychological problems. It ultimately causes the patient to require treatment in a long term care facility and eventually leads to death. Another condition, motor neuron disease, attacks the nerves and muscles, usually of people over fifty, and causes difficulty in speech, swallowing, and often a loss of control and wasting away of the body.
Another relatively common degenerative condition is Parkinson’s disease, which usually afflicts patients between fifty and seventy-five and causes tremors, poor balance, a blank expression, and muscle spasms. In this condition, cells in the brain stem that are charged with making the neurotransmitter dopamine degenerate, causing dopamine deprivation and resulting in tremors. Fortunately, current treatments with the drug l-dopa enable the brain to resume much of its former functioning. Finally, perhaps the most common degenerative brain disease is senility. Most commonly, it is due to either Alzheimer’s disease or a condition called Lewy Body disease. In old age, a poor supply of blood to the brain can lead to the rapid death of many vital brain cells. However, professionals should never hastily write off symptoms to “old age” without thoroughly evaluating the situation, as dementia-like symptoms can also be caused by other factors such as drug interactions and endocrine imbalance.
Treatment for degenerative brain diseases depends on the specific condition. While some such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease often respond well to various medications, others such as senile dementia are generally irreversible. Research continues on all of these conditions, in hopes of finding interventions that will enhance the quality of life for patients both young and old. In addition, patients will continue to benefit from the ongoing support of family members, care-givers, and knowledgeable medical professionals who remain committed to treating each patient as an individual and each brain injury as the unique set of challenges it inevitably becomes.