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Rett syndrome

Abstract

Rett syndrome (RTT) is a genetic brain disorder which typically becomes apparent after six months of age in females. Symptoms include problems with language, coordination, and repetitive movements. Often there is slower growth, problems walking, and a smaller head size. Complications can include seizures, scoliosis, and sleeping problems. Those affected, however, may be affected to different degrees.

Rett syndrome is due to a genetic mutation of the MECP2 gene. This gene occurs on the X chromosome. Typically it develops as a new mutation, with less than one percent of cases being inherited from a person's parents. Boys who have a similar mutation typically die shortly after birth. Diagnosis is based on symptoms and can be confirmed with genetic testing.

There is no cure for Rett syndrome. Treatment is directed at improving symptoms. Anticonvulsants may be used to help with seizures. Special education, physiotherapy, and braces may also be useful. Many people with the condition live into middle age.

It affects about 1 in 8,500 females. Andreas Rett, a pediatrician in Vienna, first described the condition in 1966. As his writings were in German they did not become widely known. Bengt Hagberg, a Swedish pediatrician, published an English article in 1983 and named the condition after Rett. In 1999 Huda Zoghbi discovered the mutation that causes the condition.

Signs and symptoms | Stage I

Stage I, called early onset, typically begins between 6 and 18 months of age. This stage is often overlooked because symptoms of the disorder may be somewhat vague, and parents and doctors may not notice the subtle slowing of development at first. The infant may begin to show less eye contact and have reduced interest in toys. There may be delays in gross motor skills such as sitting or crawling. Hand-wringing and decreasing head growth may occur, but not enough to draw attention. This stage usually lasts for a few months but can continue for more than a year.

Signs and symptoms | Stage II

Stage II, or the rapid destructive stage, usually begins between ages 1 and 4 and may last for weeks or months. Its onset may be rapid or gradual as the child loses purposeful hand skills and spoken language. Characteristic hand movements such as wringing, washing, clapping, or tapping, as well as repeatedly moving the hands to the mouth often begin during this stage. The child may hold the hands clasped behind the back or held at the sides, with random touching, grasping, and releasing. The movements continue while the child is awake but disappear during sleep. Breathing irregularities such as episodes of apnea and hyperventilation may occur, although breathing usually improves during sleep. Some girls also display autistic-like symptoms such as loss of social interaction and communication. Walking may be unsteady and initiating motor movements can be difficult. Slowed head growth is usually noticed during this stage.

Signs and symptoms | Stage III

Stage III, or the plateau or pseudo-stationary stage, usually begins between ages 2 and 10 and can last for years. Apraxia, motor problems, and seizures are prominent during this stage. However, there may be improvement in behavior, with less irritability, crying, and autistic-like features. In stage III there may be more interest in the surroundings and alertness, attention span, and communication skills may improve. Many girls remain in this stage for most of their lives.

Signs and symptoms | Stage IV

Stage IV, or the late motor deterioration stage, can last for years or decades. Prominent features include reduced mobility, curvature of the spine, and muscle weakness, rigidity, spasticity, and increased muscle tone with abnormal posturing of an arm, leg. Girls who were previously able to walk may stop walking. Cognition, communication, or hand skills generally do not decline in stage IV. Repetitive hand movements may decrease and eye gaze usually improves.

Signs and symptoms | Variants

The signs of Rett syndrome typical form are perfectly identified (e.g. see above).

In addition to the classical form of Rett syndrome, several «atypical forms» have been described over the years, the main groups are:

- Congenital variant (Rolando variant): in this severe subtype of Rett syndrome, the development of the patients and their head circumference are abnormal from birth. The typical gaze of Rett syndrome patients is usually absent;

- Zappella variant of Rett Syndrome or preserved speech variant: in this subtype of Rett syndrome the patients acquire some manual skills and language is partially recovered around the age of 5 years (that is after the regression phase). Height, weight and head circumference are often in the normal range, and a good gross motor function can be observed. The Zappella variant is a milder form of Rett syndrome;

- Hanefeld variant or early epilepsy variant. In this form of Rett syndrome, the patients suffer from epilepsy before 5 months of age.

The definition itself of the Rett syndrome has been refined over the years: as the atypical forms subsist near to the classical form (Hagberg & Gillberg, 1993), the "Rett Complex" terminology has been introduced.

Cause

Genetically, Rett syndrome (RTT) is caused by mutations in the gene MECP2 located on the X chromosome (which is involved in transcriptional silencing and epigenetic regulation of methylated DNA), and can arise sporadically or from germline mutations. In less than 10% of RTT cases, mutations in the genes CDKL5 or FOXG1 have also been found to resemble it. Rett syndrome is initially diagnosed by clinical observation, but the diagnosis is definitive when there is a genetic defect in the MECP2 gene. In some very rare cases, no known mutated gene can be found; possibly due to changes in MECP2 that are not identified by presently used techniques or mutations in other genes that may result in clinical similarities.

It has been argued that Rett syndrome is in fact a neurodevelopmental condition as opposed to a neurodegenerative condition. One piece of evidence for this is that mice with induced Rett Syndrome show no neuronal death, and some studies have suggested that their phenotypes can be partially rescued by adding functional MECP2 gene back when they are adults. This information has also helped lead to further studies aiming to treat the disorder.

Cause | Sporadic mutations

In at least 95% of Rett syndrome cases, the cause is a "de novo" mutation in the child. That is, it is not inherited from either parent. Parents are generally genotypically normal, without a MECP2 mutation.

In cases of the sporadic form of RTT, the mutated MECP2 is thought to derive almost exclusively from a de novo mutation on the male copy of the X chromosome. It is not yet known what causes the sperm to mutate, and such mutations are rare.

Cause | Germline mutations

It can also be inherited from phenotypically normal mothers who have a germline mutation in the gene encoding "methyl-CpG-binding protein-2", MeCP2. In these cases, inheritance follows an X-linked dominant pattern and is seen almost exclusively in females, as most males die "in utero" or shortly after birth. MECP2 is found near the end of the long arm of the X chromosome at Xq28. An atypical form of RTT, characterized by infantile spasms or early onset epilepsy, can also be caused by a mutation to the gene encoding "cyclin-dependent kinase-like 5" (CDKL5). Rett syndrome affects one in every 12,500 female live births by age 12 years.

Mechanism | Pontine noradrenergic deficits

Brain levels of norepinephrine are lower in people with Rett syndrome (reviewed in). The genetic loss of "MECP2" changes the properties of cells in the locus coeruleus, the exclusive source of noradrenergic innervation to the cerebral cortex and hippocampus. These changes include hyperexcitability and decreased functioning of its noradrenergic innervation. Moreover, a reduction of the tyrosine hydroxylase (Th) mRNA level, the rate-limiting enzyme in catecholamine synthesis, was detected in the whole pons of "MECP2"-null male as well as in adult heterozygous ("MECP2"+/-) female mice. Using immunoquantitative techniques, a decrease of Th protein staining level, number of locus coeruleus TH-expressing neurons and density of dendritic arborization surrounding the structure was shown in symptomatic "MeCP2"-deficient mice. However, locus coeruleus cells are not dying, but are more likely losing their fully mature phenotype, since no apoptotic neurons in the pons were detected.

Researchers have concluded that "Because these neurons are a pivotal source of norepinephrine throughout the brainstem and forebrain and are involved in the regulation of diverse functions disrupted in Rett syndrome, such as respiration and cognition, we hypothesize that the locus coeruleus is a critical site at which loss of "MECP2" results in CNS dysfunction." The restoration of normal locus coeruleus function may therefore be of potential therapeutic value in the treatment of Rett syndrome.

Mechanism | Midbrain dopaminergic disturbances

The majority of dopamine in the mammalian brain is synthesized by nuclei located in the mesencephalon. The substantia nigra pars compacta (SNpc), the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the retrorubral field (RRF) contains dopaminergic neurons expressing tyrosine hydroxylase (Th, i.e. the rate-limiting enzyme in catecholamine synthesis).

The nigro-striatal pathway originates from SNpc and irradiate its principal rostral target, the Caudate-Putamen (CPu) through the median forebrain bundle (MFB). This connection is involved in the tight modulation of motor strategies computed by a cortico-basal ganglia- thalamo-cortical loop.

Indeed, based on the canonical anatomofunctional model of basal ganglia, nigrostriatal dopamine is able to modulate the motor loop by acting on dopaminergic receptors located on striatal GABAergic medium spiny neurons.

Dysregulation of the nigrostriatal pathway is causative from Parkinson disease (PD) in humans. Toxic and/or genetic ablation of SNpc neurons produces experimental parkinsonism in mice and primates. The common features of PD and PD animal models are motor impairments (hypotonia, bradykinesia, hypokinesia).

RTT pathology, in some aspects, overlaps the motor phenotype observed in PD patients. Several neuropathological studies on postmortem brain samples argued for an SNpc alteration evidenced by neuromelanin hypopigmentation, reduction in the structure area, and even controversial, signs of apoptosis. In parallel, an hypometabolism was underlined by a reduction of several catecholamines (dopamine, noradrenaline, adrenaline) and their principal metabolic by-products. Mouse models of RTT are available and the most studied are constitutively deleted "Mecp2" mice developed by Adrian Bird or Rudolf Jaenisch laboratories.

In accordance with the motor spectrum of the RTT phenotype, "Mecp2"-null mice show motor abnormalities from postnatal day 30 that worsen until death. These models offer a crucial substrate to elucidate the molecular and neuroanatomical correlates of an "MeCP2"-deficiency. Recently (2008), it was shown that the conditional deletion of "Mecp2" in catecholaminergic neurons (by crossing of Th-Cre mice with loxP-flanked "Mecp2" ones) recapitulates a motor symptomatology, it was further documented that brain levels of Th in mice lacking "MeCP2" in catecholaminergic neurons only are reduced, participating to the motor phenotype.

However, the most studied model for the evaluation of therapeutics is the "Mecp2"-null mouse (totally devoid of "MeCP2"). In this context, a reduction in the number and soma size of Th-expressing neurons is present from 5 weeks of age and is accompanied by a decrease of Th immunoreativity in the caudate-putamen, the principal target of dopaminergic neurons arising from the SNpc. Moreover, a neurochemical analysis of dopaminergic contents in microdissected midbrain and striatal areas revealed a reduction of dopamine at five and nine weeks of age. It is noteworthy that later on (at nine weeks), the morphological parameters remain altered but not worsen, whereas the phenotype progresses and behavioral deficits are more severe. Interestingly, the amount of fully activated Th (Serine40-phosphorylated isoform) in neurons that remain in the SNpc is mildly affected at 5 weeks but severely impaired by 9 weeks. Finally, using a chronic and oral L-Dopa treatment on "MeCP2"-deficient mice authors reported an amelioration of some of the motor deficits previously identified. Altogether, these results argue for an alteration of the nigrostriatal dopaminergic pathway in "MeCP2"-deficient animals as a contributor of the neuromotor deficits.

There is an association of the disease with brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).

Diagnosis

Prior to the discovery of a genetic cause, Rett syndrome had been designated as a pervasive developmental disorder by the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM), together with the autism spectrum disorders. Some argued against this conclusive assignment because RTT resembles non-autistic disorders such as fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, or Down syndrome that also exhibit autistic features.

After research proved the molecular mechanism, in 2013 the DSM-5 removed the syndrome altogether from classification as a mental disorder.

Rett syndrome diagnosis involves close observation of the child's growth and development to observe any abnormalities in regards to developmental milestones. A diagnosis is considered when decreased head growth is observed. Conditions with similar symptoms must first be ruled out.

There is a certain criteria that must be met for the diagnosis. A blood test can rule in or rule out the presence of the MECP2 mutation, however, this mutation is present in other conditions as well.

For a classic diagnosis, all four criteria for ruling in a diagnosis must be met, as well as the two criteria for ruling out a diagnosis. A period of symptom regression followed by recovery or symptom stabilization must also occur. Supportive criteria may also be present, but are not required for diagnosis. For an atypical or variant diagnosis, at least two of the four criteria for ruling in the diagnosis must be met, as well as five of the eleven supportive criteria. A period of symptom regression followed by recovery or symptom stabilization must also occur. Children are often misdiagnosed as having autism, cerebral palsy, or another form of developmental delay. A positive test for the MECP2 mutation is not enough to make a diagnosis.

Ruling in

- Decreased or loss of use of fine motor skills

- Decreased or loss of verbal speech

- Abnormalities during gait

- Repetitive hand movements such as wringing/squeezing or clapping/tapping

Ruling out

- Traumatic brain injury, neurometabolic disease, or severe infection that may better explain symptoms

- Abnormal psychomotor development during the 6 months of life

Supportive criteria

- Breathing disturbances when awake

- Bruxism while awake

- Impaired sleep pattern

- Abnormal muscle tone

- Peripheral vasomotor disturbances

- Scoliosis/kyphosis

- Growth retardation

- Small cold hands and feet

- Inappropriate laughing/screaming spells

- Diminished response to pain

- Intense eye communication (eye pointing)

Diagnosis | Differential diagnosis

Signs of Rett syndrome that are similar to autism:

Signs of Rett syndrome that are also present in cerebral palsy (regression of the type seen in Rett syndrome would be unusual in cerebral palsy; this confusion could rarely be made):

Treatment

Currently there is no cure for Rett syndrome. Treatment is directed towards improving function and addressing symptoms throughout life. A multi-disciplinary team approach is typically used to treat the person throughout life. This team may include primary care physician, physical therapist, occupational therapist, speech-language pathologist, nutritionist, and support services in academic and occupational settings.

Treatment of Rett syndrome includes:

Because of the increased risk of sudden cardiac death, when long QT syndrome is found on an annual screening EKG it is treated with an anti-arrhythmic such as a beta-blocker. There is some evidence that phenytoin may be more effective than a beta-blocker.

Prognosis

Males with pathogenic "MECP2" mutations usually die within the first 2 years from severe encephalopathy, unless they have an extra X chromosome (often described as Klinefelter syndrome), or have somatic mosaicism.

Male fetuses with the disorder rarely survive to term. Because the disease-causing gene is located on the X chromosome, a female born with an MECP2 mutation on her X chromosome has another X chromosome with an ostensibly normal copy of the same gene, while a male with the mutation on his X chromosome has no other X chromosome, only a Y chromosome; thus, he has no normal gene. Without a normal gene to provide normal proteins in addition to the abnormal proteins caused by a MECP2 mutation, the XY karyotype male fetus is unable to slow the development of the disease, hence the failure of many male fetuses with a MECP2 mutation to survive to term.

Females with a MECP2 mutation, however, have a non-mutant chromosome that provides them enough normal protein to survive longer. Research shows that males with Rett syndrome may result from Klinefelter's syndrome, in which the male has an XXY karyotype. Thus, a non-mutant "MECP2" gene is necessary for a Rett's-affected embryo to survive in most cases, and the embryo, male or female, must have another X chromosome.

There have, however, been several cases of 46,XY karyotype males with a MECP2 mutation (associated with classical Rett syndrome in females) carried to term, who were affected by neonatal encephalopathy and died before 2 years of age. The incidence of Rett syndrome in males is unknown, partly owing to the low survival of male fetuses with the Rett syndrome-associated MECP2 mutations, and partly to differences between signs caused by MECP2 mutations and those caused by Rett's.

Females can live up to 40 years or more. Laboratory studies on Rett syndrome may show abnormalities such as:

- EEG abnormalities from 2 years of age

- atypical brain glycolipids

- elevated CSF levels of "beta"-endorphin and glutamate

- reduction of substance P

- decreased levels of CSF nerve growth factors

A high proportion of deaths are abrupt, but most have no identifiable cause; in some instances death is the result most likely of:

- spontaneous brainstem dysfunction

- cardiac arrest, likely due to long QT syndrome, ventricular tachycardia or other arrhythmias

- seizures

- gastric perforation