Neurodegerative diseases - what are they?

If you, or a loved one, have recently been diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease you're probably anxious to know more about this group of complex diseases which can sound very scary. Find out all the key facts here

In a nutshell

The term 'neurodegenerative disease' covers a whole range of conditions all resulting in the loss of nerve cells and the gradual decline in the brain's ability to keep going.

Three facts worth knowing

1. Alzheimer's, Parkinsons Huntington's disease, Motor Neurone disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease are all classed as neurodegenerative diseases but Alzheimer's is the most common.

2. There are hundreds of other lesser known neurodegenerative diseases, including Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) which is the most common form of motor neuron disease. However, research so far has been focused on three; Parkinson's, Huntington's and Alzheimer's.

3. Alzheimer's is the most common neurodegenerative disease, accounting for around 60-70 per cent of cases.

What actually happens

Neurodegenerative diseases lead to progressive brain damage, which affects many of the body's activities, such as moving, talking and memory. Each of the diseases has its own medications and treatments – which are improving rapidly – designed to relieve pain and improve quality of life.

Here's the science

Neurodegenerative diseases are caused by abnormally shaped proteins in the brain which stick together in clumps and fibres. When enough of these proteins build up, they can trigger a reaction which results in the death of nerve cells.

Good to know

•  Scientists are currently investigating the possibility of treating several neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimers and Parkinsons, with the same drug. Although the research is still in its infancy, tests on animals have been encouraging and a first set of tests on humans has just been carried out.

•  There's always reason to hope. When world renowned scientist Professor Stephen Hawking was given the devastating diagnosis of ALS as a young man he was given 'two years' to live...that was 52 years ago!