Abstract Background Sporadic amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (sALS) is a motor neuron disease with poorly understood etiology. Results of gene expression profiling studies of whole blood from ALS patients have not been validated and are difficult to relate to ALS pathogenesis because gene expression profiles depend on the relative abundance of the different cell types present in whole blood. We conducted microarray analyses using Agilent Human Whole Genome 4 × 44k Arrays on a more homogeneous cell population, namely purified peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBLs), from ALS patients and healthy controls to identify molecular signatures possibly relevant to ALS pathogenesis. Methods Differentially expressed genes were determined by LIMMA (Linear Models for MicroArray) and SAM (Significance Analysis of Microarrays) analyses. The SAFE (Significance Analysis of Function and Expression) procedure was used to identify molecular pathway perturbations. Proteasome inhibition assays were conducted on cultured peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) from ALS patients to confirm alteration of the Ubiquitin/Proteasome System (UPS). Results For the first time, using SAFE in a global gene ontology analysis (gene set size 5-100), we show significant perturbation of the KEGG (Kyoto Encyclopedia of Genes and Genomes) ALS pathway of motor neuron degeneration in PBLs from ALS patients. This was the only KEGG disease pathway significantly upregulated among 25, and contributing genes, including SOD1, represented 54% of the encoded proteins or protein complexes of the KEGG ALS pathway. Further SAFE analysis, including gene set sizes >100, showed that only neurodegenerative diseases (4 out of 34 disease pathways) including ALS were significantly upregulated. Changes in UBR2 expression correlated inversely with time since onset of disease and directly with ALSFRS-R, implying that UBR2 was increased early in the course of ALS. Cultured PBMCs from ALS patients accumulated more ubiquitinated proteins than PBMCs from healthy controls in a serum-dependent manner confirming changes in this pathway. Conclusions Our study indicates that PBLs from sALS patients are strong responders to systemic signals or local signals acquired by cell trafficking, representing changes in gene expression similar to those present in brain and spinal cord of sALS patients. PBLs may provide a useful means to study ALS pathogenesis.