New Hope for Motor Neuron Diseases?

Motor neuron diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) have devastating effects on movement, independence, and ultimately patients’ lives. Few effective treatments exist to slow the degeneration of motor neurons that transmit signals from the brain to control muscle contractions. But emerging research suggests that hyperbaric oxygen therapy may have untapped potential for treating certain neurodegenerative diseases.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized, air-tight chamber. It exposes the entire body to oxygen concentrations up to three times higher than normal air. Some studies indicate that this flood of oxygen acts as a signaling molecule that counteracts inflammation while stimulating tissue regeneration and healing – including growth of new blood vessels.

Although exactly how hyperbaric oxygen affects neurons requires further study, preliminary research in animal models of ALS and Alzheimer’s disease has shown promising results. Hyperbaric oxygen preserved motor neurons in the spinal cord, enhanced nerve cell function, and alleviated defects in learning and memory in mice genetically engineered to develop neurodegeneration. Scientists speculate that bathing oxygen-starved cells in extra oxygen reduces their dysfunction and death.

There are even some inspirational success stories emerging. One ALS patient confined to a wheelchair reported improved mobility and breathing after several months of hyperbaric oxygen treatments. He could walk again with support and climb a flight of stairs – defying expectations for his disease stage. While only anecdotal, such cases warrant further research.

While human trials are still limited for hyperbaric oxygen therapy in motor neuron disease, it does have an excellent safety record when used properly with few side effects. With emerging evidence for its neuroprotective benefits from animal models and patient reports, hyperbaric oxygen deserves deeper investigation through rigorous controlled clinical trials to definitively determine its efficacy.

Given the lack of treatments available for ALS, SMA, and related neurodegenerative disorders, hyperbaric oxygen represents an exciting non-invasive intervention with plausible biological mechanisms for nursing dying cells back to health. With further research, it may one day give hope to patients desperate for ways to preserve precious motor neurons and muscles before it’s too late.

Source: GeroScience. 2023 Apr; 45(2): 747–756. Published online 2022 Dec 16. doi: 10.1007/s11357-022-00707-z