What is it? Anyone who enjoys walking, dancing, or generally moving has their spinal cord to thank. The spinal cord connects the body and the brain, and without it, movement or feeling below the neck would be impossible. The spinal cord is a long, complex makeup of tissue that extends from the area in the base of the brain called the foramen magnum (translated from Latin as “great hole”) down to the lower region of the thoracic spine, ending at the top of the lumbar region. It ranges between 40 and 50 cm in length and 1 and 1.5 cm in diameter.
The spinal cord is comprised of 31 pairs of spinal nerves that each contain a sensory nerve and a motor nerve root. These nerves are responsible for movement throughout the body, both voluntary (a hand wave) and involuntary (a reflex to a hot stove). Of the 31 pairs of spinal nerves, there are:
- eight pairs of cervical nerves, responsible for movement in the head, neck, shoulders, arms, and hands;
- 12 pairs of thoracic nerves, which connect to portions of the upper abdomen and muscles in the back and chest;
- five pairs of lumbar nerves, responsible for movement in the lower back and legs;
- five pairs of sacral nerves, which provide movement to the buttocks, legs, feet, anal and genital areas of the body;
- one pair of coccygeal nerves, which affects the area on the skin above the spinal root.
Why does it matter? The spinal cord is part of the brain! When an individual is diagnosed with ALS, motor neurons in their brain, brainstem and spinal cord gradually degenerate and ultimately die. ALS affects motor neurons in the spine and impedes an individual’s movement. In cases of limb onset ALS, patients will begin noticing symptoms in their arms or legs. An individual may have a difficult time walking, running, or lifting objects.
Project ALS is working with the best scientists worldwide to identify treatments for ALS. We detailed ALS’ connection to autophagy in our last “What is…” segment, and researchers are looking into the spinal cord as a major area for medical progress in ALS as well. The spinal cord plays a huge part in ALS, and we think it will provide us with helpful clues for a diagnosis, treatments and a cure.