Background: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a universally fatal neurodegenerative disease. ALS is determined by gene-environment interactions and improved understanding of these interactions may lead to effective personalised medicine. The role of physical exercise in the development of ALS is currently controversial. Methods: First, we dissected the exercise-ALS relationship in a series of two-sample Mendelian randomisation (MR) experiments. Next we tested for enrichment of ALS genetic risk within exercise-associated transcriptome changes. Finally, we applied a validated physical activity questionnaire in a small cohort of genetically selected ALS patients. Findings: We present MR evidence supporting a causal relationship between genetic liability to frequent and strenuous leisure-time exercise and ALS using a liberal instrument (multiplicative random effects IVW, p=0.01). Transcriptomic analysis revealed that genes with altered expression in response to acute exercise are enriched with known ALS risk genes (permutation test, p=0.013) including C9ORF72, and with ALS-associated rare variants of uncertain significance. Questionnaire evidence revealed that age of onset is inversely proportional to historical physical activity for C9ORF72-ALS (Cox proportional hazards model, Wald test p=0.007, likelihood ratio test p=0.01, concordance=74%) but not for non-C9ORF72-ALS. Variability in average physical activity was lower in C9ORF72-ALS compared to both non-C9ORF72-ALS (F-test, p=0.002) and neurologically normal controls (F-test, p=0.049) which is consistent with a homogeneous effect of physical activity in all C9ORF72-ALS patients. Interpretation: Our MR approach suggests a positive causal relationship between ALS and physical exercise. Exercise is likely to cause motor neuron injury only in patients with a risk-genotype. Consistent with this we have shown that ALS risk genes are activated in response to exercise. In particular, we propose that G4C2-repeat expansion of C9ORF72 predisposes to exercise-induced ALS. Funding: We acknowledge support from the Wellcome Trust (JCK, 216596/Z/19/Z), NIHR (PJS, NF-SI-0617-10077; IS-BRC-1215-20017) and NIH (MPS, CEGS 5P50HG00773504, 1P50HL083800, 1R01HL101388, 1R01-HL122939, S10OD025212, P30DK116074, and UM1HG009442).
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
- Mendelian randomisation
- Physical exercise
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)