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Metachromatic leukodystrophy

Metachromatic leukodystrophy (MLD) is a genetic disorder that affects nerves, muscles, other organs, and behavior. It slowly gets worse over time.

Causes

MLD is usually caused by the lack of an important enzyme called arylsulfatase A (ARSA). Because this enzyme is missing, chemicals called sulfatides build up in the body and damage the nervous system, kidneys, gallbladder, and other organs. In particular, the chemicals damage the protective sheaths that surround nerve cells.

The disease is passed down through families (inherited). You must get a copy of the defective gene from both your parents to have the disease. Parents can each have the defective gene, but not have MLD. A person with one defective gene is called a "carrier."

Children who inherit only one defective gene from one parent will be a carrier, but usually will not develop MLD. When two carriers have a child, there is a 1 in 4 chance that the child will get both genes and have MLD.

MLD occurs in about 1 in 40,000 people. There are three forms of the disease. The forms are based on when the symptoms begin:

  • Late infantile MLD symptoms usually begin by ages 1 to 2.
  • Juvenile MLD symptoms usually begin between ages 4 and 12.
  • Adult (and late-stage juvenile MLD) symptoms may occur between age 14 and adulthood (over age 16), but may begin as late as the 40s or 50s.

Symptoms

Symptoms of MLD may include any of the following:

  • Abnormally high or decreased muscle tone, or abnormal muscle movements, any of which may cause problems walking or frequent falls
  • Behavior problems, personality changes, irritability
  • Decreased mental function
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Inability to perform normal tasks
  • Incontinence
  • Poor school performance
  • Seizures
  • Speech difficulties, slurring

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will perform a physical exam, focusing on the nervous system symptoms.

Tests that may be done include:

  • Blood or skin culture to look for low arylsulfatase A activity
  • Blood test to look for low arylsulfatase A enzyme levels
  • DNA testing for the ARSA gene
  • MRI of the brain
  • Nerve biopsy
  • Nerve signaling studies
  • Urinalysis

Treatment

There is no cure for MLD. Care focuses on treating the symptoms and preserving the person's quality of life with physical and occupational therapy.

Bone marrow transplant may be considered for infantile MLD.

Research is studying ways to replace the missing enzyme (arylsulfatase A).

Support Groups

For additional information and resources, see:

Outlook (Prognosis)

MLD is a severe disease that gets worse over time. Eventually, people lose all muscle and mental function. Life span varies, depending on what age the condition started, but the disease course usually runs 3 to 20 years or more.

People with this disorder are expected to have a shorter than normal lifespan. The earlier the age at diagnosis, the more quickly the disease progresses.

Prevention

Genetic counseling is recommended if you have a family history of this disorder.

Alternative Names

MLD; Arylsulfatase A deficiency; Leukodystrophy - metachromatic; ARSA deficiency

References

Kwon JM. Neurodegenerative disorders of childhood. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme JW, Schor NF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 599.

Pastores GM. Lysosomal storage diseases. In: Swaiman KF, Ashwal S, Ferriero DM, Schor NF, eds. Swaiman's Pediatric Neurology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2012:chap 36.

Review Date 10/30/2016

Updated by: Anna C. Edens Hurst, MD, MS, Assistant 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, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.