Disease at a Glance

Summary
Metachromatic leukodystrophy is an inherited disorder characterized by the accumulation of fats called sulfatides in cells. This accumulation especially affects cells in the nervous system that produce myelin, the substance that insulates and protects nerves. Nerve cells covered by myelin make up a tissue called white matter. Sulfatide accumulation in myelin-producing cells causes progressive destruction of white matter (leukodystrophy) throughout the nervous system, including in the brain and spinal cord (the central nervous system) and the nerves connecting the brain and spinal cord to muscles and sensory cells that detect sensations such as touch, pain, heat, and sound (the peripheral nervous system).In people with metachromatic leukodystrophy, white matter damage causes progressive deterioration of intellectual functions and motor skills, such as the ability to walk. Affected individuals also develop loss of sensation in the extremities (peripheral neuropathy), incontinence, seizures, paralysis, an inability to speak, blindness, and hearing loss. Eventually they lose awareness of their surroundings and become unresponsive. While neurological problems are the primary feature of metachromatic leukodystrophy, effects of sulfatide accumulation on other organs and tissues have been reported, most often involving the gallbladder.The most common form of metachromatic leukodystrophy, affecting about 50 to 60 percent of all individuals with this disorder, is called the late infantile form. This form of the disorder usually appears in the second year of life. Affected children lose any speech they have developed, become weak, and develop problems with walking (gait disturbance). As the disorder worsens, muscle tone generally first decreases, and then increases to the point of rigidity. Individuals with the late infantile form of metachromatic leukodystrophy typically do not survive past childhood.In 20 to 30 percent of individuals with metachromatic leukodystrophy, onset occurs between the age of 4 and adolescence. In this juvenile form, the first signs of the disorder may be behavioral problems and increasing difficulty with schoolwork. Progression of the disorder is slower than in the late infantile form, and affected individuals may survive for about 20 years after diagnosis.The adult form of metachromatic leukodystrophy affects approximately 15 to 20 percent of individuals with the disorder. In this form, the first symptoms appear during the teenage years or later. Often behavioral problems such as alcoholism, drug abuse, or difficulties at school or work are the first symptoms to appear. The affected individual may experience psychiatric symptoms such as delusions or hallucinations. People with the adult form of metachromatic leukodystrophy may survive for 20 to 30 years after diagnosis. During this time there may be some periods of relative stability and other periods of more rapid decline.Metachromatic leukodystrophy gets its name from the way cells with an accumulation of sulfatides appear when viewed under a microscope. The sulfatides form granules that are described as metachromatic, which means they pick up color differently than surrounding cellular material when stained for examination.
Estimated Number of People with this Disease

This section is currently in development.

What Information Does GARD Have For This Disease?

Many rare diseases have limited information. Currently GARD is able to provide the following information for this disease:

*Data may be currently unavailable to GARD at this time.
Categories
When do symptoms of this disease begin?
This section is currently in development. 

Symptoms

This section is currently in development. We recommend speaking with a doctor to learn more about this disease. 

Causes

This section is currently in development. 

Next Steps

Talking with the Medical Team

Good communication between the patient, family, and medical team can lead to an accurate diagnosis. In addition, health care decisions can be made together which improves the patient’s well-being and quality of life.

Describing Symptoms

Describe details about the symptoms. Because there may be many different causes for a single symptom, it is best not to make a conclusion about the diagnosis. The detailed descriptions help the medical provider determine the correct diagnosis.

To help describe a symptom:

  • Use a smartphone or a notebook to record each symptom before the appointment
  • Describe each symptom by answering the following questions:
    • When did the symptom start?
    • How often does it happen?
    • Does anything make it better or worse?
  • Tell the medical team whether any symptoms affect daily activities

Preparing for the First Visit

Working with a medical team to find a diagnosis can be a long process that will require more than one appointment. Make better health decisions by being prepared for the first visit with each member of the medical team.

    Make informed decisions about health care: 
    • Prepare a list of questions and concerns before the appointment
    • List the most important questions first, not all questions may be answered in the first visit
    • Ask questions about symptoms, possible diagnoses, tests, and treatment options
    For future appointments:
    • Discuss what was not addressed at the last visit
    • Discuss changes in the quality of life for the patient, family, and caregivers
    • Discuss health goals and other issues in the patient’s and family’s life that may affect the health care decisions
    Take notes during the appointments to help remember what was discussed.

    Last Updated: Nov. 8, 2021