Snapshot: What is Riluzole?

Riluzole, often sold under the trade name Rilutek, is a medication used for the treatment of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). ALS is a fatal neurodegenerative disease that mainly affects neurons controlling muscle movements. The drug was approved by the FDA (1995), Health Canada (1997), and the European Commission (1996). It helps slow down disease progression and may extend patient survival. The medication is available in tablet and liquid form, generally well-tolerated. There are sometimes mild side effects, which may include loss of appetite, nausea, and abdominal pain.

Close up of a woman taking a pill with water
Riluzole has been used to treat ALS, and research has suggested it may also help with forms of ataxia. It is currently being tested in clinical trials. Photo used under license by fizkes/

How does it work?

Exactly how Riluzole slows disease progression remains unknown. However, it is thought that its neuroprotective effects likely stem from reducing a phenomenon known as excitotoxicity.

Neurons communicate with each other through chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. The signalling of these messengers needs to be tightly controlled. Too little or too much signaling will disrupt normal functions of the brain and cause damage to cells. Excitotoxicity is the result of excessive signaling by glutamate, one of the most abundant neurotransmitters in the brain. Glutamate is also associated with many neurodegenerative diseases.

Riluzole prevents this excessive signaling through several mechanisms. It is hypothesized that the effectiveness of riluzole in ALS treatment is the result of this neuroprotective property.

Riluzole for Ataxia

The neuroprotective function of riluzole has been a point of interest for the treatment of other neurodegenerative diseases since its approval. Multiple clinical trials have been conducted for patients with neurodegenerative diseases including Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, multiple system atrophy, and ataxia.

In 2010, a pilot trial was conducted with 40 patients with cerebellar ataxia who showed a lower level of motor impairment, measured by the International Cooperative Ataxia Rating Scale. A follow-up trial was then performed in 2015 for 55 patients with spinocerebellar ataxia (SCA) or Friedreich’s ataxia. Similarly, patient impairment had improved by an alternative measurement using the Scale for the Assessment and Rating of Ataxia. These findings indicate the possibility of riluzole being an effective treatment for cerebellar ataxia. However, more long-term studies and ones that are specific to different types of SCA need to be conducted to confirm the results.

Riluzole in Development

Even though riluzole was discovered more than 25 years ago, variations of the drug are still under development. As ALS often affects a patient’s ability to swallow, a new formulation of riluzole that is absorbed by placing it under your tongue is being developed under the name Nurtec.

Another prodrug version of riluzole, named Troriluzole (BHV-4157), may be better absorbed by the body with fewer side effects. Troriluzole is currently in phase three clinical trial for patients with different types of SCA. The trial is expected to be complete by November 30, 2021, and will hopefully provide more insight into the effectiveness of Troriluzole in SCA patients.

If you would like to learn more about Riluzole, take a look at these resources by the and the Mayo Clinic.

Snapshot written by Christina (Yi) Peng and edited by Terry Suk.

A New Use for Old Drugs

Written by Dr. Amy Smith-Dijak Edited by Logan Morrison

Basic biology helps identify a new treatment for ataxia

Drug design doesn’t always have to start with a blank slate. Sometimes understanding how existing drugs work can help researchers to design new ones, or even to recombine old drugs in new and more effective ways. That’s what the researchers behind this paper did. They investigated the basic biology of three existing drugs: chlorzoxazone, baclofen, and SKA-31.

Two of these – chlorzoxazone and baclofen – are already FDA-approved for use as muscle relaxants, and chlorzoxazone had previously been found to have a positive effect on eye movements in spinocerebellar ataxia type 6. Looking at the results of their experiments, they realized that a combination of chlorzoxazone and baclofen would probably be an effective treatment for ataxia over a long period. They offered this drug combination to patients, who had few adverse effects and showed improvement in their diseasesymptoms. Based on these findings, the researchers recommended that larger trials of this drug combination should be conducted and that people trying to design new drugs to treat ataxia should try to interact with the same targets as chlorzoxazone.

mutliple types of drugs in pill form scattered ac
Can old drugs have potential for new types of treatment? Photo by Anna Shvets on

When this paper’s authors started their research, they wanted to know more about how ataxia changes the way that brain cells communicate with each other. Brain cells do this using a code made up of pulses of electricity. They create these pulses by controlling the movement of electrically charged atoms known as ions. The main ions that brain cells use are potassium, sodium, calcium and chloride. Cells control their movement through proteins on their surface called ion channels which allow specific types of ions to travel into or out of the cell at specific times. Different types of cells use different combinations of ion channels, which causes different types of ions to move into and out of the cell more or less easily and under different conditions. This affects how these cells communicate with each other.

For example, a cell’s “excitability” is a measure of how easy it is for that cell to send out electrical pulses. Creating these pulses depends on the right ions entering and exiting the cell at the right time in order to create one of these pulses. Multiple types of spinocerebellar ataxia seem to make it difficult for Purkinje cells, which send information out of the cerebellum, to properly control the pattern of electrical signals that they send out. This would interfere with the cerebellum’s ability to communicate with the rest of the brain. The cerebellum plays an important roll in balance, posture and general motor coordination, so miscommunication between it and the rest of the brain would account for many of the symptoms of spinocerebellar ataxias.

Earlier research had found a link between this disrupted communication and a decrease in the amount of some types of ion channels that let potassium ions into Purkinje cells. Thus, this paper’s authors wanted to see if drugs that made the remaining potassium channels work better would improve Purkinje cell communication.

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Les yeux, des fenêtres pour voir la fonction cérébrale dans les ataxies spinocérébelleuses

Écrit par Dr Sriram Jayabal, Édité par Dr David Bushart, Traduction française par: L’Association Alatax, Publication initiale: 20 décembre 2019 

Les déficits de mouvement oculaire se produisent de manière omniprésente dans les ataxies spinocérébelleuses, même aux premiers stades de la maladie, soulignant leur importance clinique.

Imaginez les différents mouvements moteurs que vous effectuez dans votre vie quotidienne. Beaucoup de gens pensent aux actions que nous effectuons en utilisant nos mains et nos jambes, comme atteindre des objets ou marcher. Zoomons sur une autre tâche : attraper une balle de baseball. Vous devez savoir où la balle va atterrir pour pouvoir courir jusqu’à cet endroit, puis guider vos bras pendant la plongée, si nécessaire, pour attraper la balle. Pour que cela fonctionne parfaitement, vous devez voir et suivre la balle. Vos yeux vous permettent de suivre la balle pendant qu’elle se déplace. Comment vos yeux peuvent-ils garder le ballon au point pendant que vous courez à pleine vitesse vers l’endroit où vous vous attendez à ce que le ballon atterrisse ? Vos yeux sont équipés de muscles qui permettent aux yeux de bouger afin de garder la scène visuelle au point. Ces mouvements oculaires, comme l’exigent les besoins du scénario actuel, dans ce cas, attraper une balle de baseball, nous sont indispensables pour voir le monde sans aucune entrave.

Woman with hand in a "C" shape in front of her face. She's focusing in on her eye.
Les yeux peuvent fournir une fenêtre sur l’ataxie spinocérébelleuse, avant même que d’autres symptômes n’apparaissent. Photo de fotografierende sur

Quelle région du cerveau nous donne le pouvoir de le faire?

C’est le cervelet qui permet de bouger les bras et les jambes avec précision, contrôle également la façon dont nous bougeons nos yeux. Par conséquent, il est logique d’affirmer que lorsque le cervelet tourne mal, cela peut entraîner des anomalies des mouvements oculaires. Plusieurs études antérieures ont montré que cela était vrai dans de nombreuses ataxies spinocérébelleuses (SCA), où des symptômes non liés à la marche tels que des anomalies des mouvements oculaires se sont avérés accompagner les déficits de la marche aux stades avancés de la maladie. Cependant, des travaux récents de pionniers de la recherche clinique sur l’ataxie à la Harvard Medical School ont montré que les anomalies des mouvements oculaires sont également couramment présentes dans les SCA, même dans les états pré-symptomatiques. Cette étude met l’accent sur la nécessité cruciale de mieux documenter l’historique des déficits des mouvements oculaires et de les suivre tout au long de la progression de la maladie. Cela aidera les chercheurs à développer de meilleures échelles d’évaluation de l’ataxie.

Dans cette étude, une population de patients SCA (134 individus) qui présentaient différents types de SCA (y compris SCA1, SCA2, SCA3, SCA5, SCA6, SCA7, SCA8 et SCA17) ont été évalués pour les anomalies des mouvements oculaires à différents stades de la maladie, du stade pré-symptomatique (sans déficit de marche) au stade avancé (ceux qui utilisent un fauteuil roulant). Premièrement, il a été constaté que ~ 78% de tous les individus pré-symptomatiques présentaient des déficits de mouvement oculaire, et ces déficits sont devenus encore plus courants à mesure que la maladie progressait, où chaque personne à un stade avancé présentait des déficits de mouvement oculaire.

Deuxièmement, lorsque les chercheurs ont examiné de près les mouvements oculaires, ils ont constaté que différents types d’ataxie pouvaient provoquer différents types de déficits des mouvements oculaires.

Cependant, ces résultats ne sont que suggestifs en raison de la faible population d’individus SCA à un stade précoce dans cette étude et des types d’évaluations utilisées. Par conséquent, les études futures nécessiteront une plus grande taille de la population et une analyse quantitative approfondie des types spécifiques de déficits de mouvement oculaire pour aider à caractériser les anomalies du mouvement oculaire dans les SCA. Enfin, la Brief Ataxia Rating Scale (BARS), un test clinique simple récemment conçu pour l’ataxie, a été encore améliorée dans cette étude pour tenir compte des déficits de mouvement oculaire cliniquement observés dans les SCA. Avec une métrique aussi nuancée, un score BARS amélioré s’est révélé corrélé avec le stade, la gravité et la durée de la maladie, quel que soit le type d’ataxie.

Continue reading “Les yeux, des fenêtres pour voir la fonction cérébrale dans les ataxies spinocérébelleuses”

Working with cerebellar ataxia

Written by Dr. David Bushart Edited by Dr. Sriram Jayabal

How can employment be made more accessible for ataxia patients? What barriers exist? A study of workers and non-workers with ataxia analyzes the benefit of employment, as well as how to reduce risk of injury.

A job can often become part of a person’s identity. When people meet for the first time, one of the first questions that often comes up is “what do you do for work?” While this question can be harmless, it can also be frustrating to non-workers, particularly to those who are actively looking for employment. This may include some patients with cerebellar ataxia.

It can be difficult to manage disease symptoms alongside the stress of a job. However, some patients may find that including a job as part of their routine can be helpful for physical and mental wellness. In these cases, it is important for ataxia patients to have access to fair employment. Despite these benefits, finding a job can prove quite challenging, and unfortunately, ignorant assumptions about the capabilities of workers with ataxia may make finding employment even harder. How can employment be made more accessible to ataxia patients who wish to work?

two people shaking bands over a business agreement
Photo by fauxels on

Determining the work capabilities of ataxia patients

Helping ataxia patients find work might have a significant benefit on their overall quality-of-life. Researchers in Italy designed a study to get a better idea about the capabilities of workers with ataxia and the barriers to employment that they face. The research team, led by Alberto Ranavolo, interviewed both workers and non-workers with ataxia. Importantly, the patients interviewed for this study had been diagnosed with different types of ataxia, including dominantly-inherited ataxias, Friedrich’s ataxia, and other ataxias with unknown causes. Within this group, 24 were currently workers and 58 were non-workers at the time of the study. This allowed the researchers to determine how characteristics such as age, gender, education, and duration of symptoms might impact the ability to work.

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Eyes: Windows to peek at brain function in spinocerebellar ataxias

Written by Dr. Sriram Jayabal Edited by Dr. David Bushart

Eye movement deficits occur ubiquitously in spinocerebellar ataxias, even at early disease states, highlighting their clinical importance.

Imagine the different motor movements that you make in your everyday life. Many people think of actions that we perform using our hands and legs, such as reaching for objects or walking. Let’s zoom in on a different task: catching a baseball. You need to know where the ball is going to land so you can run to that spot, then guide your arms while diving, if need be, to catch the ball. For this to work perfectly, you need to see and follow the ball. Your eyes enable you to track the ball while it is moving. How can your eyes keep the ball in focus while you are running at full speed towards the spot where you expect the ball to land? Your eyes are equipped with muscles which enable the eyes to move so as to keep the visual scene in focus. These eye movements, as demanded by the needs of the current scenario, in this case, catching a baseball, are indispensable for us to see the world without any hindrance.

Woman with hand in a "C" shape in front of her face. She's focusing in on her eye.
The eyes may provide a window into spinocerebellar ataxia, even before other symptoms show up. Photo by fotografierende on

Which brain region gives us the power to do this?

The cerebellum, or “little brain”, which enables one to move their arms and legs precisely, also controls the way we move our eyes. Therefore, it is logical to posit that when cerebellum goes awry, it may lead to eye movement abnormalities. Several previous studies have shown this to be true in many spinocerebellar ataxias (SCAs), where non-gait symptoms such as eye movement abnormalities have been found to accompany gait deficits in advanced stages of the disease. However, recent work from pioneers in clinical ataxia research at the Harvard Medical School have shown that eye movement abnormalities are also commonly present in SCAs even in pre-symptomatic states. This study emphasizes the critical need to better document the history of eye movement deficits and track them throughout the progression of the disease. This will help researchers to develop better rating scales for ataxia.

In this study, a population of SCA patients (134 individuals) who exhibited different types of SCA (including SCA1, SCA2, SCA3, SCA5, SCA6, SCA7, SCA8 and SCA17) were assessed for eye movement abnormalities at different stages of the disease, from pre-symptomatic (with no gait deficits) to advanced stages (those who use a wheel-chair). First, it was found that ~78% of all pre-symptomatic individuals exhibited eye movement deficits, and these deficits became even more common as the disease progressed, where every single person in advanced stages exhibited eye movement deficits. Second, when researchers examined the eye movements closely, they found that different types of ataxia might cause different kinds of eye movement deficits. However, these results are only suggestive because of the small population size of early-stage SCA individuals in this study, and the types of assessments used. Therefore, future studies will require a larger population size and a thorough quantitative analysis of specific types of eye movement deficits to help characterize eye movement abnormalities in SCAs. Finally, the Brief Ataxia Rating Scale (BARS), a recently designed simple clinical test for ataxia, was further improved in this study to account for the clinically observed eye movement deficits in SCAs. With such a nuanced metric, an improved BARS score was found to correlate with the stage, severity and duration of the disease irrespective of the type of ataxia.

Continue reading “Eyes: Windows to peek at brain function in spinocerebellar ataxias”