Leigh Syndrome

What is Leigh syndrome?
Leigh syndrome is a severe neurological disorder that typically arises in the first year of life. This condition is characterized by progressive loss of mental and movement abilities (psychomotor regression) and typically results in death within a couple of years, usually due to respiratory failure. A small number of individuals develop symptoms in adulthood or have symptoms that worsen more slowly.

The first signs of Leigh syndrome seen in infancy are usually vomiting, diarrhea, and difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) that leads to eating problems. These problems often result in an inability to grow and gain weight at the expected rate (failure to thrive). Severe muscle and movement problems are common in Leigh syndrome. Affected individuals may develop weak muscle tone (hypotonia), involuntary muscle contractions (dystonia), and problems with movement and balance (ataxia). Loss of sensation and weakness in the limbs (peripheral neuropathy), common in people with Leigh syndrome, may also make movement difficult.

Several other symptoms may occur in people with Leigh syndrome. Many affected individuals develop weakness or paralysis of the muscles that move the eyes (ophthalmoparesis); rapid, involuntary eye movements (nystagmus); or degeneration of the nerves that carry information from the eyes to the brain (optic atrophy). Severe breathing problems are common in people with Leigh syndrome, and these problems can worsen until they cause acute respiratory failure. Some affected individuals develop hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is a thickening of the heart muscle that forces the heart to work harder to pump blood. In addition, a substance called lactate can build up in the body, and excessive amounts are often found in the blood, cerebrospinal fluid, or urine of people with Leigh syndrome.

The signs and symptoms of Leigh syndrome are caused in part by patches of damaged tissue (lesions) that develop in the brains of people with this condition. A procedure called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) reveals characteristic lesions in certain regions of the brain and the brainstem (the part of the brain that is connected to the spinal cord). These regions include the basal ganglia, which help control movement; the cerebellum, which controls the ability to balance and coordinates movement; and the brainstem, which controls functions such as swallowing, breathing, hearing, and seeing. The brain lesions are often accompanied by loss of the myelin coating around nerves (demyelination), which reduces the ability of the nerves to activate muscles used for movement or relay sensory information back to the brain.

How common is Leigh syndrome?
Leigh syndrome affects at least 1 in 40,000 newborns. The condition is more common in certain populations. For example, the condition occurs in approximately 1 in 2,000 newborns in the Saguenay Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec, Canada.

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