Multiple System Atrophy

What is Multiple System Atrophy?

Multiple System Atrophy (MSA) is a neurodegenerative condition that affects a person’s autonomic nervous system and movement ability. It is characterized by the loss of function and the death of various nerve cells within the spinal cord and brain. MSA is a rare progressive disorder, affecting up to 50,000 Americans from all walks of life and racial backgrounds. Most cases appear randomly, and the cause of the disease is not known. However, research has shown an association with a buildup of alpha-synuclein protein in the nerve cells of the brain.

MSA is divided into two types: the parkinsonian type (MSA-P) and the cerebellar type (MSA-C). MSA-P is the form that imitates Parkinson’s, while MSA-C presents as more of a neurological condition. Not surprisingly, MSA is sometimes mistaken for Parkinson’s, especially during the early stages.

What are the Symptoms of Multiple System Atrophy?

Patients typically first notice indications of MSA when they are in their 50s, and symptoms can advance quickly in the first five to ten years. Depending on the type of MSA can vary.

Symptoms include

  • Fainting spells
  • Irregular heart beat
  • Lack of bladder control
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Tremors
  • Slow movement
  • Lightheadedness
  • Muscle rigidity
  • Lack of muscle coordination
  • Speech difficulties
  • Abnormal eye movements
  • Change in gait

During the later stages, patients may eventually be confined to their beds. They can also develop pneumonia or die suddenly as a result of respiratory or cardiac issues associated with MSA.

Multiple System Atrophy Causes

There are no known causes of multiple system atrophy, despite extensive research into both the genetic and environmental backgrounds of patients with the disease. Cases are sporadic and random, and one person may be diagnosed where family members such as parents, children, and siblings remain entirely unafflicted.

The areas of the brain controlling movement, autonomic functions, and balance usually have abnormally high amounts of alpha-synuclein, indicating an issue with the body’s ability to produce this protein. The deterioration of the brain cells is hypothesized to be caused by alpha-synuclein building up in the brain cells of the patient, but the causation of this is unknown.

It has been suggested that the problem lies in a gene responsible for creating alpha-synuclein, gene SCNA. Whether or not this can be proven is undetermined, although research is still being done on how the disease progresses in different patients and other possible causations.

How is Multiple System Atrophy Treated?

There is no cure for multiple system atrophy, so treatment focuses on managing the symptoms to help patients preserve as much function as possible.

Treatments include

Medications can be used to raise blood pressure, treat impotence, reduce Parkinson’s-like symptoms, and improve bladder function. If breathing or swallowing is a problem, breathing or feeding tubes may need to be surgically inserted. In some cases, doctors may recommend implanting a pacemaker to help improve blood pressure.

Multiple System Atrophy Prevention

Because the disease has no known causes, prevention is impossible. Any and all environmental risk factors have remained undetermined, implying that there is no way to prevent MSA. In many cases, patients do not know they have it until they begin showing symptoms and are diagnosed by a doctor or healthcare professional. There is much we do not know about the brain, and hopes of finding the cure, as well as prevention methods, lie in studying other neurodegenerative disorders.

Many studies into alpha-synuclein proteins and their roles in Multiple System Atrophy are underway, and if you or a loved one has been diagnosed, there are options for research and potential treatment. The rarity of the disease does not diminish its effect, and it is important to be aware and seek help if you or someone you know begins showing symptoms. Catching the disease early can help improve chances for treatment and make things easier for all involved parties.

Last Reviewed:
September 21, 2016
Last Updated:
March 09, 2018