Review article| Volume 23, SUPPLEMENT 1, S38-S43, December 2001

Importance of Rett syndrome in child neurology

  • Henry G. Dunn
    Division of Neurology, Room A306, British Columbia's Children's Hospital, 4480 Oak Street, Vancouver, BC V6H 3V4, Canada. Tel.: +1-604-875-2121; fax: +1-604-875-2285
    Department of Pediatrics, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC Canada
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      The syndrome of brain atrophy in girls described by Andreas Rett in 1966 [Rett, Wien Klin Wochenschr, 1966;116:723–726] was brought to the attention of the English-speaking world by Hagberg et al. in 1983 [Hagberg et al., Ann Neurol, 1983;14:471–479]. Four clinical stages after the age of 6 months were described in classical cases of Rett syndrome (RS), namely early onset stagnation at 6 months to 11/2 years, the rapid destructive stage at 1–3 years, the pseudo-stationary stage from pre-school to school years, and the late motor deterioration stage at 15–30 or more years. The rapid destructive stage causes profound dementia with loss of speech and hand skills, stereotypic movements, ataxia, apraxia, irregular breathing with hyperventilation while awake, and frequently seizures. Most cases are isolated in their families, apart from identical twins. However, linkage studies in rare familial cases suggested a critical region at Xq28. In 1999 American investigators found several mutations in the X-linked gene MECP2 encoding Methyl-CpG-binding protein 2 in a proportion of Rett patients. The protein MeCP2 can bind methylated DNA and when mutated may interfere with transcriptional silencing of other genes and result in abnormal chromatin assembly. Many different mutations of the protein are being studied in humans and in mice. Neuropathological studies have shown decreased brain growth and decreased size of individual neurons, with thinned dendrites in some cortical layers, and abnormalities in substantia nigra, suggestive of deficient synaptogenic development, probably starting before birth. Electrophysiology demonstrates progressively abnormal electroencephalograms (EEG) in the first three stages of the syndrome, with some subsequent improvement and occurrence of pseudoseizures. Neurometabolic factors are discussed in detail, particularly reduced levels of dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline and choline acetyltransferase (ChAT) in brain, also estimation of nerve growth factors, endorphin, substance P, glutamate and other amino acids and their receptor levels. Autonomic dysfunction is described, particularly reduced vagal and overactive sympathetic activity. Neuro-imaging may be required for further investigation, as shown in the differential diagnosis.


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