Adrenoleukodystrophy describes several closely related disorders that disrupt the breakdown of certain fats. These disorders are often passed down (inherited) in families.
Adrenoleukodystrophy is usually passed down from parent to child as an X-linked genetic trait. It affects mostly males. Some women who are carriers can have milder forms of the disease. It affects about 1 in 20,000 people from all races.
Some cases of adrenoleukodystrophy occur when the gene mutates on its own. This is called sporadic and is not inherited.
The condition results in the buildup of very-long-chain fatty acids in the nervous system, adrenal gland, and testes. This disrupts normal activity in these parts of the body.
There are three major categories of disease:
- Childhood cerebral form -- appears in mid-childhood (at ages 4 to 8)
- Adrenomyelopathy -- occurs in men in their 20s or later in life
- Impaired adrenal gland function (called Addison disease or Addison-like phenotype) -- adrenal gland does not produce enough steroid hormones
Childhood cerebral type symptoms include:
- Changes in muscle tone, especially muscle spasms and uncontrolled movements
- Crossed eyes
- Handwriting that gets worse
- Difficulty at school
- Difficulty understanding what people are saying
- Hearing loss
- Worsening nervous system damage, including coma, decreased fine motor control, and paralysis
- Swallowing difficulties
- Visual impairment or blindness
Adrenomyelopathy symptoms include:
- Difficulty controlling urination
- Possible worsening muscle weakness or leg stiffness
- Problems with thinking speed and visual memory
Adrenal gland failure (Addison type) symptoms include:
- Decreased appetite
- Increased skin color
- Loss of weight and muscle mass (wasting)
- Muscle weakness
Exams and Tests
Tests for this condition include:
- Blood levels of very long chain fatty acids and hormones that are produced by the adrenal gland
- Chromosome study to look for changes (mutations) in the ABCD1 gene
- MRI of the head
- Skin biopsy
Adrenal dysfunction may be treated with steroids (such as cortisol) if the adrenal gland is not producing enough hormones.
A specific treatment for X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy is not available. A bone marrow transplant may stop worsening of the condition.
Supportive care and careful monitoring of impaired adrenal gland function may help in improving comfort and quality of life.
More information and support for people with adrenoleukodystrophy and their families can be found at:
- National Organization for Rare Disease Disorders -- rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/adrenoleukodystrophy
- NIH Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center -- rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/5758/x-linked-adrenoleukodystrophy
The childhood form of X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy is a progressive disease. It leads to a long-term coma (vegetative state) about 2 years after nervous system symptoms develop. The child can live in this condition for as long as 10 years until death occurs.
The other forms of this disease are milder.
These complications can occur:
- Adrenal crisis
- Vegetative state
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Contact your health care provider if:
- Your child develops symptoms of X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy
- Your child has X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy and is getting worse
Genetic counseling is recommended for couples with a family history of X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy. Mothers of affected sons have an 85% chance of being a carrier for this condition.
Prenatal diagnosis of X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy is also available. It is done by testing cells from chorionic villus sampling or amniocentesis. These tests look for either a known genetic change in the family or for very long chain fatty acid levels.
X-linked Adrenoleukodystrophy; Adrenomyeloneuropathy; Childhood cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy; ALD; Schilder-Addison Complex
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Lissauer T, Carroll W. Neurological disorders. In: Lissauer T, Carroll W, eds. Illustrated Textbook of Paediatrics. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 29.
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Review Date 11/1/2021
Updated by: Anna C. Edens Hurst, MD, MS, Associate Professor in Medical Genetics, The University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.