Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as motor neurone disease (MND) or Lou Gehrig's disease, is a specific disease that causes the death of neurons controlling voluntary muscles. Some also use the term motor neuron disease for a group of conditions of which ALS is the most common. ALS is characterized by stiff muscles, muscle twitching, and gradually worsening weakness due to muscles decreasing in size. It may begin with weakness in the arms or legs, or with difficulty speaking or swallowing. About half of the people affected develop at least mild difficulties with thinking and behavior and most people experience pain. Most eventually lose the ability to walk, use their hands, speak, swallow, and breathe.
The cause is not known in 90% to 95% of cases, but is believed to involve both genetic and environmental factors. The remaining 5–10% of cases are inherited from a person's parents. About half of these genetic cases are due to one of two specific genes. The underlying mechanism involves damage to both upper and lower motor neurons. The diagnosis is based on a person's signs and symptoms, with testing done to rule out other potential causes.
No cure for ALS is known. The goal of treatment is to improve symptoms. A medication called riluzole may extend life by about two to three months. Non-invasive ventilation may result in both improved quality and length of life. Mechanical ventilation can prolong survival but does not stop disease progression. A feeding tube may help. The disease can affect people of any age, but usually starts around the age of 60 and in inherited cases around the age of 50. The average survival from onset to death is two to four years, though this can vary. About 10% survive longer than 10 years. Most die from respiratory failure. In Europe, the disease affects about two to three people per 100,000 per year. Rates in much of the world are unclear. In the United States, it is more common in white people than black people.
Descriptions of the disease date back to at least 1824 by Charles Bell. In 1869, the connection between the symptoms and the underlying neurological problems was first described by Jean-Martin Charcot, who in 1874 began using the term amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It became well known in the United States in the 20th century when in 1939 it affected the baseball player Lou Gehrig and later worldwide following the 1963 diagnosis of cosmologist Stephen Hawking. The first ALS gene was discovered in 1993 while the first animal model was developed in 1994. In 2014, videos of the Ice Bucket Challenge went viral on the Internet and increased public awareness of the condition.