A high calorie diet could extend the lives of people suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). 

A recent study found ALS patients who were given a " high-calorie, high-carbohydrate tube-feeding formula" lived longer on average and experienced fewer adverse event than those who were not, a Massachusetts General Hospital news release reported. 

"We are particularly excited because these results provide the first preliminary evidence that a dietary intervention may improve life expectancy in ALS, and they are strongly supported by epidemiological and animal data," Anne-Marie Wills, MD, of the MGH Department of Neurology and Neurological Clinical Research Institute (NCRI), said in the news release. "This strategy has never been tested before in ALS, and we are optimistic that it may provide a new, effective and inexpensive therapy for this devastating illness."

The condition, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is a "progressive neurodegenerative disease affecting motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord," the news release reported. When these nerve cells die they slow the transmission of neural impulses to muscle fibers; this can result in weakness, paralysis, and death from respiratory failure. 

Patietns suffering from ALS tend to lose a significant amount of weight due to muscle atrophy, weakness, and the inability to consume large amounts of food. A feeding tube is usually recommended as the patient's condition deteriorates, but little research has been done on when this treatment should begin. 

A past study on rodents showed subjects with ALS who were given a " high-calorie, high-fat diet," lived longer than those that were not. 

"The current study was designed primarily to test the safety and tolerability of high-calorie nutritional formulas - with or without the excess fats included in the mouse study - in patients with advanced ALS," the news release reported.

The researchers looked at 24 ALS patients who had loss a significant amount of body weight and were receiving calorie supplements via feeding tube. A control group was given a formula developed for weight stability while two other groups were given formula that provided125 percent of the calories needed for patients to maintain their weight. One of the high-calorie formulas was high in fats while the other was high in carbohydrates. 

During the study none of the patients receiving the high-carb formula experienced adverse health events; one patient on the high-fat diet had to withdraw because of adverse events and three from the control group. 

The patients on the high-carbohydrate formula gained a "modest" amount of weight while those in the control group maintained their weight. Those on the high-calorie formula lost weight. 

Over the course of the five month follow-up period none of the high-carb patients died, but one in the high-fat and three in the control group passed away from reparatory failure

"While it's not possible to make clinical recommendations based on this single, small study, I think the results support the importance of avoiding weight loss in this disease," Wills said. "We're hoping to obtain funding for a large study of whether nutrition counseling to encourage weight gain - something not currently covered by health insurers - can help slow the progression of ALS, and I'm optimistic that interventions designed to maintain or increase weight could be even more effective if started before patients have lost a significant amount of weight.".