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Health Beat: ALS: Take a deep breath

Published On: Dec 24 2013 12:29:53 PM CST
Updated On: Dec 24 2013 04:41:30 PM CST

ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neuro-degenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -

ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neuro-degenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. 

Sooner or later, it will attack every muscle in a patient's body, making it impossible to move, even breathe. Now, a new machine is helping people suffering from ALS breathe easier.

Mary Pat Murray has lived with ALS for more than four years. Checkups are not just routine for her, they can be lifesaving.

Traditionally, patients like Murray would use a BiPAP machine to help her breathe. She'd wear a mask, tethered to a ventilator. It would force air into Murray's lungs.

Now, Murray is the first ALS patient at The Ohio State University to be implanted with a diaphragmatic pacing system to help her strengthen her muscles.

"It feels like a really hard hiccup at first and then eventually you get used to it," Murray said.

The external device sends electrical signals to the nerve that controls the diaphragm, replacing signals normally sent by the brain telling it to expand and retract.

"All she needs to do when she is ready at night is to turn that on and it'll begin to help to contract the diaphragm as she's breathing," said Dr. Stephen J. Kolb, co-director, ALS/MND Clinic, department of neurology, The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

The DPS conditions the muscle while Murray sleeps.

"This gives us another tool in our tool belt where we can maybe engage the motor-neurons in the diaphragm; maybe allow the diaphragm to maintain strength longer in ALS, and improve quality of life and lifespan, so it's very exciting," Kolb said.

In just six months, Murray said she's felt a difference.

"I can carry on a conversation. I can eat. I can drink," Murray explained.

She is thankful for the technology that allows her to do what most of us take for granted.

Thirty-thousand Americans are living with ALS right now. Next year, the device will be part of a multi-clinic study to determine if DPS actually helps ALS patients live longer in addition to breathing easier.

DOWNLOAD and VIEW research summary

DOWNLOAD and VIEW the full-length interview with Dr. Stephen Kolb