Alpers-Huttenlocher disease (AHD) is a rare encephalopathy of infancy and childhood characterized by myoclonic seizures and progressive neurological deterioration, usually associated with signs and symptoms of liver dysfunction. There is no biological marker of the disease, and ultimate diagnosis still relies on pathological examination. Features of clinical progression and pathological findings suggest AHD to be secondary to a genetically determined disorder of mitochondrial function. We report on four AHD patients and focus on their pathological features in brain, liver and muscle. Liver and muscle biopsy specimens were examined using histochemical markers of the oxidative pathways, probes to immunodetect molecules of the apoptotic cascades and electron microscopy. In liver (but not in muscle) biopsy samples, activated caspases were detected by immunohistochemistry: foci of caspase-9-positive cells were seen in a child affected with chronic, progressive fibrosis. In an 18-year-old boy, who suffered from valproic acid-associated acute hepatitis, caspase-3 cells were clustered among the necrotic foci and the foamy cells. In both patients electron microscopy revealed apoptotic nuclei. Normal muscle biopsy specimens were observed in two children, 2 and 8 years-old respectively; in the 18-year-old patient cytochrome oxidase-negative fibers as well as ultrastructural findings of mitochondrial abnormalities were observed. In no patient was there biochemical evidence of impaired oxidative metabolism. Neuropathological examination of the brains of two patients (13 months and 19 years old, respectively) showed focal distribution of the lesions affecting the telencephalic cortex and, to a lesser extent, subcortical gray nuclei. Along with the necrotizing lesions, characterized by neuronal loss, neuropil microcysts and newly formed vessels, we also observed acutely shrunken neurons and features of apoptotic cell death in the cerebral cortex only. Severe neuronal loss without necrotizing features was observed in the cerebellar cortex. The presence of both anoxic and apoptotic nuclei in brain and liver, the target tissues of the disease, is consistent with the hypothesis that abnormal activation of mitochondrion-related cell death pathways might be involved in the pathogenesis of AHD.
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