Researchers from Israel think it might be possible that gluten sensitivity could cause a syndrome that looks like ALS. But it's important, first and foremost, to note that that this is a very preliminary investigation.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly referred to as "Lou Gehrig's Disease," is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, eventually leading to paralysis. More than 5,600 people are diagnosed with it every year.
[Dr. Vivian E.] Drory and her team from Tel Aviv Medical Center found antibodies to an enzyme produced in the brain, called tissue transglutaminase 6 (TG6), in 23 out of 150 patients with ALS, compared with only five of 115 healthy volunteers. Furthermore, the concentrations of those antibodies were higher in the ALS patients.
Antibodies to another transglutaminase, TG2, are produced by people with celiac disease when they eat gluten, a protein in wheat, barley and rye.
About 45 percent of patients with celiac disease also produce antibodies to TG6, even when they have no neurological symptoms. (In some patients, gluten sensitivity can cause neurologic problems, and many of those patients do have antibodies toward TG6.)
The authors wrote that ALS patients with antibodies to TG6 demonstrated the typical symptoms and rate of disease progression of ALS, while the healthy volunteers with antibodies to TG6 showed no symptoms of any disease.
Neither the ALS patients nor the volunteers had the antibodies to TG2 typically associated with celiac disease, but the ALS patients were more likely than the volunteers to demonstrate the genetic mutations that put them at risk for celiac disease.
Drory said her team is now studying TG6 antibody levels in patients newly diagnosed with ALS. They will be testing the effects of a gluten-free diet in some of those that test positive. She doesn't expect any results to turn up, though, for at least another two years.
While that's underway, she advises ALS patients not to experiment on themselves. "Patients should not be tempted to use a gluten-free diet without clear evidence for antibodies, because an unbalanced diet might harm," she told Reuters.
"Especially in ALS we know that maintaining a good caloric intake and weight improves prognosis. While one can achieve a good caloric intake with a gluten-free diet, this should be done only under dietician advice and in the specific patients in whom antibodies are detected."
As always, keep in mind that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. Past studies have actually found that there is no link between gluten and ALS, so obviously, more research needs to be done.
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