Gut bacteria may play a role in the disease that killed Prof Hawking

Gut bacteria may play a role in motor neurone disease: Experiment reveals some strains speed up progression of the cruel condition that killed Professor Stephen Hawking

  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a disease with no cure
  • Research in mice found a change in gut bacteria before symptoms appeared
  • Of 11 identified strains, some exacerbated the disease, while others hindered it
  • The replenishing of some helped prolong the survival of ill mice 
  • The results are preliminary but the scientists are experimenting with humans

Gut bacteria could play a role in the development of motor neurone disease – also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, early studies suggest. 

Tests on mice showed a change in their gut microbe levels before symptoms of the crippling disorder appeared.

Some bacterial strains sped up the progression of the disease. The abundance of others were reduced during disease progression.

Replenishing the levels of one strain improved symptoms and prolonged survival in the mice with ALS. 

There is no cure for the cruel condition that killed Professor Stephen Hawking, but experts believe this is a step forward, albeit a small one. 

Gut bacteria may play a role in motor neurone disease ALS by speeding up progression, early studies reveal. The cruel condition that killed Professor Stephen Hawking, pictured

Researchers at The Weizmann Institute in Israel altered the genetics of mice so that they would have ALS.

Their symptoms worsened when they were given antibiotics that wiped out their gut bacteria, suggesting alterations in the gut were linked to the disease.

When the researchers compared the gut bacteria of the diseased mice with regular mice, they were able to identify different gut strains. 

They noticed 12 different species were found in either higher or lower numbers in the diseased mice, the BBC reports.

Researchers led by Dr Eran Blacher isolated the strains and gave them one by one – in the form of probiotic-like supplements – to the ALS-prone mice.

Some of the strains, such as Ruminococcus torques and Parabacteroides distasonis, made the disease more severe.

But one strain, Akkermansia muciniphila, significantly slowed the progression of the disease and prolonged the lives of the mice. 

To reveal how by which A. muciniphila produced its effect, the scientists examined thousands of small molecules secreted by the gut microbes. 

They zeroed in on one molecule secreted by A. muciniphila, called nicotinamide (NAM), according to the results published in the journal Nature. 

The scientists injected the ALS-prone mice with NAM, and their condition improved significantly. 

It is believed NAM works by reducing oxidative stress – which can lead to tissue damage – preserving neurons in the brain.

Professor Eran Elinav, one of the researchers involved in the study, described the findings as being ‘very exciting’.

Although the researchers stress their findings are preliminary and that much more work is needed, they said it may be applicable to human ALS patients.


The British physicist, who died on March 14, 2018 age 76, was confined to a wheelchair from his early 20s due to an early onset slow-progressing form of motor neurone disease – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).  

He lost his capacity to speak in 1985, but a voice synthesizer allowed him to continue communicating, and he wrote 15 books and starred in the Simpsons and Star Trek.

He was the second very high profile ALS sufferer after Lou Gehrig, the baseball player who catapulted the disease into the public eye.   

Hawking was something of a medical marvel because he lived with the disease for a lot longer than expected. 

The disease is a rare condition that progressively damages parts of the nervous system.

It occurs when specialist nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord called motor neurons stop working properly – known as neurodegeneration.

There’s currently no cure for motor neurone disease.

Treatment aims to make the person feel comfortable and have the best quality of life possible.  

In a small study of 37 patients with ALS and 29 controls, the authors also observed a change in the composition of gut microbes, and reduced levels of NAM.

They say these preliminary human findings are not sufficient to constitute a treatment recommendation.

ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that effects the muscles used for walking and talking. Patients have a life expectancy of about three to 10 years.

But the world-renowned physicist Professor Hawking lived with the disease for more than five decades before his death in 2018.

The cause of ALS is not known, but scientific studies suggests that both genetics and environment play a role in the development. 

Dr Brian Dickie, director of research development at the Motor Neurone Disease Association, welcomed the findings.

He said: ‘There is increasing evidence from a wide variety of sources that the bacteria in our gut can play a role in a wide-range of neurological conditions.

‘Though ALS has not been as widely studied as other conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and stroke.

‘These are important new findings, which support the theory that certain bacteria may play a disease-modifying role in ALS.

‘This adds to an emerging, but still fuzzy, picture of a different metabolism that seems to occur in people with ALS.’

Dr Dickie added: ‘Diet and exercise are also being studied as potential factors associated with the disease.’

Almost 15,000 Americans have ALS, according to estimations from the CDC, and about 5,000 in the UK are living with a motor neuron disease, according to NHS. 


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