Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a group of inherited disorders characterized by a loss of certain nerve cells in the spinal cord called motor neurons or anterior horn cells. Motor neurons receive the nerve impulses transmitted from the brain to the spinal cord (brainstem) and, in turn, transmit the impulses to the muscle via the peripheral nerves. The loss of motor neurons leads to progressive muscle weakness and muscle wasting (atrophy) in muscles closest to the trunk of the body (proximal muscles) such as the shoulders, hips and back. These muscles are necessary for crawling, walking, sitting up and head control. The more severe types of SMA can affect muscles involved in feeding, swallowing and breathing.
SMA is divided into subtypes based on age of onset and maximum function achieved. SMA types 0, 1, 2, 3 and 4 are inherited as autosomal recessive genetic disorders and are associated with abnormalities (mutations) in the SMN1 and SMA2 genes which are located on chromosome 5.