Neurodegenerative diseases have traditionally been defined as clinico-pathological entities. The clinician observes characteristic clusters of symptoms that relate to the anatomical distribution of the lesion. Typically, these symptoms progress in a characteristic sequence allowing the clinician to make a provisional diagnosis. At autopsy, the pathologist examines the nature and distribution of the lesions, reads the clinical report and makes a definitive diagnosis. This structure is so deeply embedded in our concepts of neurodegenerative disease that we are hardly aware of it. It has become deeply embedded because it has been a useful construct that allows grouping of patients for research, especially in treatment trials. However this success has served to hide its limitations and molecular genetic analysis has clearly shown that there are other ways of thinking about neurodegenerative disease. In this review, I will summarize the limitations of the clinicopathological approach, and discuss how molecular genetics offers an alternative way of thinking about neurodegeneration. My intention is not to suggest that we should replace the clinicopathological approach (Newtonian physics is a perfectly good way of thinking about the world on a day-to-day basis even though we know it is only an approximation to the truth) but rather, to suggest that future treatments for these most devastating diseases may come from a deeper understanding of their related pathogenesis.

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