Multiple System Atrophy

Multiple system atrophy (MSA) is an uncommon, progressive neurological disorder that affects many areas of your brain and nervous system. Multiple system atrophy may cause ataxia or parkinsonism. This condition frequently impairs body systems that modulate your blood pressure, heart rate and bladder function (autonomic function.)

Symptoms of multiple system atrophy can include:

  • Rigid muscles and difficulty bending your arms and legs
  • Slow movement (bradykinesia)
  • Tremors (rare in MSA compared with classic Parkinson's disease)
  • Impaired posture and balance
  • Lack of muscle coordination (ataxia)
  • Impairment of movement and coordination, such as unsteady gait and loss of balance
  • Slurred, slow or low-volume speech (dysarthria)
  • Visual disturbances, such as blurred vision and difficulty focusing your eyes
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) or chewing
  • Postural (orthostatic) hypotension, a form of low blood pressure that makes you feel dizzy or lightheaded, or even faint, when you stand up from sitting or lying down

People with multiple system atrophy may have other difficulties with body functions that occur voluntarily (autonomic), including:

  • Impotence and loss of libido (in men)
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control (incontinence)
  • A reduction in the production of perspiration, tears and saliva
  • Impaired control of body temperature, often causing cold hands or feet as well as heat intolerance due to impaired sweating
  • Constipation
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Difficulty controlling emotions
  • Agitated sleep due to "acting out" one's dreams
  • Abnormal breathing at night

Causes of Multiple Systems Atrophy

MSA affects both men and women primarily in their 50s. Although what causes MSA is unknown, the disorder's symptoms reflect the loss of nerve cells in several different areas in the brain and spinal cord that control the autonomic nervous system and coordinate muscle movements. The loss of nerve cells may be due to the buildup of a protein called alpha-synuclein in the cells that produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter that relays motor commands in the brain.

Treatment and Prognosis for Multiple System Atrophy

There is no cure for MSA. Currently, there are no treatments to delay the progress of neurodegeneration in the brain, but there are treatments available to help people cope with some of the more disabling symptoms of MSA.

The disease tends to advance rapidly over the course of 9 to 10 years, with progressive loss of motor skills, eventual confinement to bed, and death. There is no remission from the disease. There is currently no cure.