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Rett syndrome/r
Classification and external resources
ICD-10 F84.2
ICD-9 330.8
OMIM 312750
DiseasesDB 29908
eMedicine med/3202
MeSH C10.574.500.775

Rett syndrome is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is classified as an autism spectrum disorder by the DSM-IV. It was first described by Austrian pediatrician Andreas Rett in 1966. The clinical features include a deceleration of the rate of head growth (including microcephaly in some) and small hands and feet. Repetitive hand movements such as mouthing or wringing are also noted. Girls with Rett syndrome are prone to gastrointestinal disorders and up to 80% have seizures.[1] They typically have no verbal skills, and about 50% of females are not ambulatory. Scoliosis, growth failure, and constipation are very common and can be problematic. Some argue[citation needed] that it is misclassified as an autism spectrum disorder, just as it would be to include such disorders as fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, or Down syndrome where one can see autistic features.[2] The signs of this disorder are most easily confused with those of Angelman syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism.



Genetically Rett syndrome (symbolized RTT) is caused by mutations in the gene MECP2 located on the X chromosome and can arise (1) sporadically or (2) from germline mutations.

Sporadic mutations

Rett syndrome is usually caused (95% or more) by a de novo mutation in the child, and not inherited from either parent. Parents are generally genotypically normal, without a MECP2 mutation.

In sporadic cases of Rett syndrome, it is thought that the mutated MECP2 is usually derived from the male copy of the X chromosome. [3] It is not yet known what causes the sperm to mutate, and such mutations are rare.

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.[4] MECP2 is found near the end of the long arm of the X chromosome at Xq28. An atypical form of Rett syndrome, 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.

Locus coeruleus and MECP2

Brain levels of norepinephrine are lower in people with Rett syndrome[5] (reviewed in[6]). The genetic loss of MECP2 changes the properties of cells in the locus ceruleus, the exclusive source of noradrenergic innervation to the cerebral cortex and hippocampus.[7][8] These changes include hyperexcitability and decreased functioning of its noradrenergic innervation.[9] 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.[10] 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.[10] 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.[10] 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.[9][10]

Gender and Rett syndrome

Male fetuses with the disorder rarely survive to term. Because the disease-causing gene is located on the X chromosome, a female born with a 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 check 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 at least to birth. Research shows that males with Rett syndrome almost all have Klinefelter's syndrome as well (in which the male has an XXY karyotype).[11] 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.[12] The incidence of Rett syndrome in males is unknown, partly due to 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.[13][14]

The severity of Rett syndrome in females can vary depending on the type and position of the mutation of MECP2 and the pattern of X-chromosome inactivation. It is generally assumed that 50% of a female's cells use the maternal X chromosome while the other 50% uses the paternal X chromosome (see X-inactivation). However, if most cells in the brain activate the X chromosome with the functional MECP2 allele, the individual will have very mild Rett syndrome; likewise, if most neurons activate the X chromosome with the mutated MECP2 allele, the individual will have very severe Rett syndrome just as males with MECP2 mutations do[citation needed] (as they only have one X chromosome).

Development and signs

Development is typically normal until 6–18 months, when language and motor milestones regress, purposeful hand use is lost, and acquired deceleration in the rate of head growth (resulting in microcephaly in some) is seen. Hand stereotypies are typical, and breathing irregularities such as hyperventilation, breathholding, or sighing are seen in many. Early on, autistic-like behavior may be seen. The infant with Rett syndrome often avoids detection until 6–18 months due to a relatively normal appearance and some developmental progress. However, closer scrutiny reveals disturbance of the normal spontaneous limb and body movements that are thought to be regulated in the brainstem. The brief period of developmental progress is followed by stagnation and regression of previously acquired skills. During regression, some features are similar to those of autism. It is, hence, easy to mistakenly diagnose Rett syndrome for autism.

Signs of Rett syndrome that are similar to autism:

  • screaming fits
  • panic attack
  • inconsolable crying
  • avoidance of eye contact
  • lack of social/emotional reciprocity
  • general lack of interest
  • markedly impaired use of nonverbal behaviors to regulate social interaction
  • loss of speech
  • Balance and coordination problems, including losing the ability to walk in many cases
  • gastrointestinal problems
  • sensory problems

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):

Signs may stabilize for many decades, particularly for interaction and cognitive function such as making choices. Anti-social behavior may change to highly social behavior. Motor functions may slow as rigidity and dystonia appear. Seizures may be problematic, with a wide range of severity. Scoliosis occurs in most, and may require corrective surgery. Those who remain ambulatory tend to have less progression of scoliosis.

Treatment and prognosis

Currently there is no cure for Rett syndrome, but studies have shown that restoring MECP2 function may lead to a cure.[15] One area of research is in the use of Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1), which has been shown to partially reverse signs in MeCP2 mutant mice.[16] Such a treatment works because the neuronal cells have not atrophied, but rather are in an immature state.

Treatment of Rett syndrome includes:

There is an association of the disease with brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).[17]

The challenge of developing therapies for MECP2 disorders[18]

The recent studies (funded by the International Rett Syndrome Foundation) demonstrating that neurological deficits resulting from loss of MeCP2 can be reversed upon restoration of gene function are quite exciting because they show that neurons that have suffered the consequences of loss of MeCP2 function are poised to regain functionality once MeCP2 is provided gradually and in the correct spatial distribution. This provides hope for restoring neuronal function in patients with RTT. However, the strategy in humans will require providing the critical factors that function downstream of MeCP2 because of the challenges in delivering the correct MeCP2 dosage only to neurons that lack it, given that the slightest perturbation in MeCP2 level is deleterious. Thus, therapeutic strategies necessitate the identification of the molecular mechanisms underlying individual RTT phenotypes and picking out the candidates that can be therapeutically targeted. The next phase of research needs to assess how complete the recovery is. Clearly, lethality, level of activity, and hippocampal plasticity are rescued, but are the animals free of any other RTT signs such as social behavior deficits, anxiety, and cognitive impairments? Since postnatal rescue results in viability, it will be important to evaluate if even the subtler phenotypes of RTT and MECP2 disorders are rescued when protein function is restored postnatally. This is particularly important given emerging data about early neonatal experiences and their long-term effects on behavior in adults.


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.

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

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
  • seizures
  • cardiac conduction abnormalities - abnormally prolonged QT interval on ECG
  • gastric perforation

Depiction in popular culture

  • The movie "Society's Child" (2002), starring Jessica Steen and Margot Kidder, is about a mother of a 10-year-old girl with Rett syndrome and a social worker who tries to help her. [19]
  • Jacob Appel's short story, A Thanatology for Mollusks, features a girl with Rett syndrome whose mother falls in love with her special education instructor.[20]
  • The book "Follow the Stars Home" (2000) is about a mother of a girl with Rett Syndrome, whose husband abandoned her once he learned the fetus had a disability. The mom ends up falling in love with her ex-husband's brother.
  • "Silent Angels: The Rett Syndrome Story" (2000) is a documentary narrated by Julia Roberts which tells the story of families and genetic researchers as they researched Rett Syndrome.
  • Clint Black, a country singing star, was a contestant on the 2009 season of the Celebrity Apprentice and played to win money for the International Rett Syndrome Foundation. His niece had been diagnosed with Rett Syndrome and died at the age of 16. [21]
  • "So You Think You Can Dance" (Season 4), Jean Marc Généreux choreographed a Viennese waltz for Kherington Payne and Stephen Twitch Boss that he dedicated to daughter Francesca who has Rett syndrome. [22]
  • Angela Martin, a three time contestant on American Idol has a daughter diagnosed with Rett Syndrome. During her first time on the show, the Shriners organization pledged to provide her daughter medical care until she turned 21 years of age.


  1. ^ "Predictors of Seizure Onset in Rett Syndrome" Le Jian et al
  2. ^ "Is Rett Syndrome a Subtype of Pervasive Developmental Disorders" Tsai, L.Y., Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders
  3. ^ Trappe R, Laccone F, Cobilanschi J, et al. (May 2001). "MECP2 mutations in sporadic cases of Rett syndrome are almost exclusively of paternal origin". American journal of human genetics 68 (5): 1093–101. doi:10.1086/320109. PMID 11309679. 
  4. ^ "Rett syndrome is caused by mutations in X-linked MECP2, encoding methyl-CpG-binding protein 2" Amir, R. et al.
  5. ^ Zoghbi HY, Milstien S, Butler IJ, Smith EO, Kaufman S, Glaze DG, Percy AK. (1989) Cerebrospinal fluid biogenic amines and biopterin in Rett syndrome Ann Neurol. 25(1):56-60. PMID 2913929
  6. ^ Roux JC and Villard L (2009) Biogenic Amines in Rett Syndrome The usual suspects Behav Genet
  7. ^ Hokfelt T,Martensson R,Bjorklund A,Kleinau S,Goldstein M. 1984. Distribution maps of tyrosine-hydroxylase-immunoreactive neurons in the rat brain. In Handbook of Chemical Neuroanatomy, Vol. 2. Classical Transmitters in the CNS, Part I ( A. Bjorklund and T. Hokfelt, eds.) pp. 277-379. Elsevier, New York
  8. ^ Berridge CW,Waterhouse BD 2003 The locus coeruleus-noradrenergic system: modulation of behavioral state and state-dependent cognitive processes. Brain Res Rev 42: 33-84
  9. ^ a b Taneja P, Ogier M, Brooks-Harris G, Schmid DA, Katz DM, Nelson SB. (2009). Pathophysiology of Locus Ceruleus Neurons in a Mouse Model of Rett Syndrome. Journal of Neuroscience, 29(39):12187–12195. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3156-09.2009
  10. ^ a b c d Roux JC, Panayotis N, Dura E, Villard L. (2009) Progressive Noradrenergic Deficits in the Locus Coeruleus of Mecp2 Deficient Mice J Neurosci Res
  11. ^ Schwartzman, J.S., et al. Rett Syndrome in a Boy with 47,XXY Karyotype Confirmed by a Rare Mutation on the MECP2 Gene. 2001. Neuropediatrics 32:162-164
  12. ^ Hardwick, S.A. et al. Delineation of large deletions of the MECP2 gene in Rett syndrome patients, including a familial case with a male proband. 2007. European Journal of Human Genetics. 15(12):1218-29
  13. ^ "New Study Reveals Rett Syndrome Can Strike Males" ScienceDaily, August 12, 2006
  14. ^ Moog, U., et al. Neurodevelopmental disorders in males related to the gene causing Rett syndrome in females (MECP2). 2003. European Journal of Paediatric Neurology 07:5-12
  15. ^ "Autism-like disorder 'reversible'", BBC News, 8 February 2007.
  16. ^ "Partial reversal of Rett Syndrome-like signs in MeCP2 mutant mice", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 106, no 6, 2029–2034
  17. ^ Sun, E.; Wu, H. (Feb 2006). "The Ups and Downs of BDNF in Rett Syndrome". Neuron 49 (3): 321. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2006.01.014. ISSN 0896-6273. PMID 16446133.  edit
  18. ^ "The Story of Rett Syndrome: From Clinic to Neurobiology." Chahrour et al. Neuron, Vol 56, 422-437, 08 November 2007
  19. ^
  20. ^ Flyway, Iowa State University, Volume 5, No. 1-2.
  21. ^
  22. ^


Further reading

  • Ben Zeev Ghidoni B (2007). "Rett syndrome". Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am 16 (3): 723–43. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2007.03.004. PMID 17562589. 
  • Bittner JG, et al. (2008). "Rett Syndrome and gastric perforation". Am Surg 74 (4): 315–317. 

Rett Disorder and the Developing Brain. edited by Alison Kerr & Ingegerd Witt Engerstrom Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-856815-0, 2005

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



For Andreas Rett Austrian neurologist


Wikipedia has an article on:


Rett syndrome


Rett syndrome (uncountable)

  1. (medicine) An inherited, neurological disease of (mostly female) children characterized by a small head, and by repetitive hand movements

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