The Meaning Behind the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Maria Dascola '16, Staff Writer

You’ve seen plenty of people do it, from your favorite celebrities to your friends, and even to your grandma. Yes, it’s the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge! Sure it’s super fun to dump a bucket filled with ice water on your head, but have you ever stopped to wonder what exactly ALS is?

ALS, or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, is a rapidly progressive, invariably fatal neurological disease that attacks the nerve cells (neurons) responsible for controlling voluntary muscles (muscle action we are able to control, such as those in the arms, legs, and face). The term Amyotrophic comes from Greek. A (meaning no or negative), myo (referring to the muscle), and trophic (meaning nourishment). All together it stands for “No muscle nourishment.” With ALS, both the upper motor neurons and the lower motor neurons degenerate or die, and stop sending messages to muscles. Because these muscles are unable to function, they gradually weaken, waste away, and develop very fine twitches. Eventually, the ability of the brain to start and control voluntary movement is lost. Soon, all muscles under voluntary control are affected, and those with the disease lose the strength and the ability to move their arms, legs, and body. When the muscles in the diaphragm and chest wall fail, patients lose the ability to breath without ventilatory support.  Most people with ALS die from respiratory failure, usually within 3 to 5 years from the onset of symptoms.Although the causes of ALS are not completely understood, new scientific understanding has brought a sense of understanding regarding the physiology of this disease within the last few years.

The most famous case of ALS, by far, is that of New York Yankee’s player Lou Gehrig.  Although ALS was first discovered in 1869 by French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, Lou Gehrig brought national and international attention to the disease in 1939. Unbeknownst to Gehrig, the disease inside him affected his baseball career and evidently brought him to the point where he could no longer play.  On June 13, 1939, Gehrig was sent to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.  It was confirmed on June 19, Gehrig’s 36th birthday that he had been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). His prognosis was forbidding: speedily increasing paralysis, difficulty in swallowing and speaking, and a life expectancy of less than three years, although there would be no impairment of his mental functions. On June 21, Gehrig announced his retirement from baseball. One of Gehrig’s famous quotes had to have been, “I might have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”  Lou Gehrig later passed away on June 2, 1941.

While there may not a cure or treatment today that halts or reverses ALS, scientists and doctors have come up with some FDA approved medications, such as Riluzole, that progressively slows the development of ALS. Hopefully, in the near future chemists and biologists can find some sort of cure to help those suffering from ALS.  So, the next time you think about dumping ice water over your head, think about how this is actually going to help ALS patients. Think about how actions you do are helping those fighting the war against ALS. Don’t wait until tomorrow, take a stand and make a difference today.