Pathophysiological Underpinnings of Extra-Motor Neurodegeneration in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis: New Insights From Biomarker Studies

Front Neurol. 2022 Jan 18;12:750543. doi: 10.3389/fneur.2021.750543. eCollection 2021.


Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and frontotemporal lobar degeneration (FTLD) lie at opposing ends of a clinical, genetic, and neuropathological continuum. In the last decade, it has become clear that cognitive and behavioral changes in patients with ALS are more frequent than previously recognized. Significantly, these non-motor features can impact the diagnosis, prognosis, and management of ALS. Partially overlapping neuropathological staging systems have been proposed to describe the distribution of TAR DNA-binding protein 43 (TDP-43) aggregates outside the corticospinal tract. However, the relationship between TDP-43 inclusions and neurodegeneration is not absolute and other pathophysiological processes, such as neuroinflammation (with a prominent role of microglia), cortical hyperexcitability, and synaptic dysfunction also play a central role in ALS pathophysiology. In the last decade, imaging and biofluid biomarker studies have revealed important insights into the pathophysiological underpinnings of extra-motor neurodegeneration in the ALS-FTLD continuum. In this review, we first summarize the clinical and pathophysiological correlates of extra-motor neurodegeneration in ALS. Next, we discuss the diagnostic and prognostic value of biomarkers in ALS and their potential to characterize extra-motor neurodegeneration. Finally, we debate about how biomarkers could improve the diagnosis and classification of ALS. Emerging imaging biomarkers of extra-motor neurodegeneration that enable the monitoring of disease progression are particularly promising. In addition, a growing arsenal of biofluid biomarkers linked to neurodegeneration and neuroinflammation are improving the diagnostic accuracy and identification of patients with a faster progression rate. The development and validation of biomarkers that detect the pathological aggregates of TDP-43 in vivo are notably expected to further elucidate the pathophysiological underpinnings of extra-motor neurodegeneration in ALS. Novel biomarkers tracking the different aspects of ALS pathophysiology are paving the way to precision medicine approaches in the ALS-FTLD continuum. These are essential steps to improve the diagnosis and staging of ALS and the design of clinical trials testing novel disease-modifying treatments.

Keywords: TDP-43 = TAR DNA-binding protein 43; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS); biomarker (BM); cerebrospinal fluid (CSF); frontotemporal dementia (FTD); frontotemporal lobar degeneration; neuroimage; neuropathology.

Publication types

  • Review