Association of the mtDNA m.4171C>A/MT-ND1 mutation with both optic neuropathy and bilateral brainstem lesions
- Chiara La Morgia†1, 2Email author,
- Leonardo Caporali†1,
- Francesca Gandini3,
- Anna Olivieri3,
- Francesco Toni4,
- Stefania Nassetti1,
- Daniela Brunetto1, 2,
- Carlotta Stipa1, 2,
- Cristina Scaduto1, 2,
- Antonia Parmeggiani1, 2,
- Caterina Tonon5,
- Raffaele Lodi5,
- Antonio Torroni3 and
- Valerio Carelli1, 2
© La Morgia et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2014
Received: 6 January 2014
Accepted: 1 April 2014
Published: 28 May 2014
An increasing number of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) mutations, mainly in complex I genes, have been associated with variably overlapping phenotypes of Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON), mitochondrial encephalomyopathy with stroke-like episodes (MELAS) and Leigh syndrome (LS). We here describe the first case in which the m.4171C>A/MT-ND1 mutation, previously reported only in association with LHON, leads also to a Leigh-like phenotype.
A 16-year-old male suffered subacute visual loss and recurrent vomiting and vertigo associated with bilateral brainstem lesions affecting the vestibular nuclei. His mother and one sister also presented subacute visual loss compatible with LHON. Sequencing of the entire mtDNA revealed the homoplasmic m.4171C>A/MT-ND1 mutation, previously associated with pure LHON, on a haplogroup H background. Three additional non-synonymous homoplasmic transitions affecting ND2 (m.4705T>C/MT-ND2 and m.5263C>T/MT-ND2) and ND6 (m.14180T>C/MT-ND6) subunits, well recognized as polymorphisms in other mtDNA haplogroups but never found on the haplogroup H background, were also present.
This case widens the phenotypic expression of the rare m.4171C>A/MT-ND1 LHON mutation, which may also lead to Leigh-like brainstem lesions, and indicates that the co-occurrence of other ND non-synonymous variants, found outside of their usual mtDNA backgrounds, may have increased the pathogenic potential of the primary LHON mutation.
KeywordsMitochondrial disease Vision loss Bilateral brainstem lesions LHON mtDNA mutation Leigh syndrome Idebenone
Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON), a maternally inherited blinding disorder, is associated with three common mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) point mutations affecting complex I (m.3460G>A/MT-ND1, m.11778G>A/MT-ND4, m.14484T>C/MT-ND6) in 90% of cases . A wider range of mtDNA mutations, again mainly in complex I genes (MT-ND1, MT-ND5 and MT-ND6; http://www.mitomap.org/), have been instead associated with variably overlapping phenotypes of LHON, mitochondrial encephalomyopathy with stroke-like episodes (MELAS) and Leigh syndrome (LS) . Occasionally, the latter manifestations have been described also with the common LHON mutations . A recent study, reviewing the neuroradiological features of a large cohort of LS patients, suggested that bilateral brainstem lesions are more typical of mtDNA-related complex I deficiency, in most cases with a concurrent striatal involvement . We have recently reported one such case with brainstem lesions without striatal involvement associated with the rare m.3890G>A/MT-ND1 mutation .
We here describe for the first time a maternal lineage carrying the homoplasmic rare m.4171C>A/MT-ND1 mutation, previously associated only with pure LHON, whose proband in addition to optic neuropathy presented acute onset of vomiting, vertigo and nystagmus in association with bilateral brainstem lesions affecting vestibular nuclei.
The proband suffered subacute loss of vision bilaterally at age 12, after a febrile illness, without recovery. We observed this patient at age 16, three months after the acute onset of recurrent vomiting and vertigo. Neurological examination at admission showed horizontal nystagmus, segmental and parcellar myoclonic jerks at upper and lower limbs, slight dysmetria at the right upper limb, weak deep tendon reflexes, positive Romberg sign and mild ataxic gait.Brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) revealed bilateral lesions of the brainstem involving the vestibular nuclei (Figure 1B, upper row). Moreover, MRI showed atrophy of the optic nerves bilaterally with hyperintense signal in the T2-weighted images with enhancement after gadolinium administration (not shown). Serum lactic acid after standardized exercise was abnormally elevated (3.1 mM, n.v. 1–2 mM). Ophthalmologic evaluation showed bilateral temporal pallor, visual acuity (a measure of central vision function) was 0.2 bilaterally and visual fields demonstrated bilateral cecocentral scotomas, more severe in OD (Figure 1C). Optical coherence tomography evaluating retinal nerve fiber layer thickness showed bilateral diffuse optic atrophy with nasal sparing (Figure 1D). Cognitive functions assessment was normal, as well as audiometry and electroencephalography. A therapy with high dose idebenone (540 mg/day) was started with improvement of vomiting and vertigo and visual function after about two months.Follow-up evaluation after eight months from therapy start showed an improvement of visual acuity in OS (0.4) and a slight improvement of visual field defect in both eyes (mean deviation from −18 to −15 in OD and −16 to −15 in OS) (Figure 1C). Lactic acid after exercise was slightly worse compared to the baseline evaluation (3.9 mM), but the patient reported intense physical training in the previous month. Brain MRI follow-up showed a complete resolution of vestibular nuclei lesions (Figure 1B, middle row), and the appearance of a new lesion affecting the left tuberculus quadrigeminus (Figure 1B, lower row).
Conservation analysis of private variants and contiguous amino acid residues
25 (n = 161)
48 (n = 161)
36 (n = 124)
3 (n = 126)
57 (n = 126)
54 (n = 83)
41 (n = 95)
75 (n = 95)
26 (n = 43)
Contiguous amino acid conservation
Local conservation (%)
Global conservation (%)
Nearest invariant position (−/+)
Non-synonymous nucleotide changes reported in published mtDNAs with m.4171C>A
Non-synonymous nucleotide changesa
4171A, 4824, 8794, 14766
4171A, 10203 b,,12358, 14564 b, 14766, 14841 c , 15095
4171A, 4216, 7632 c, 10398, 13708, 14766, 15257, 15452A, 15812
4171A, 4705 b, 5263 b, 14180 b
Discussion and conclusions
We report the association of the m.4171C>A/MT-ND1 LHON mutation with bilateral lesions of the brainstem resembling Leigh syndrome associated with acute onset of vomiting and vertigo, in addition to subacute bilateral loss of central vision, typical of LHON. This case extends the clinical features associated with this rare mutation, previously reported only in association with pure LHON, [8–11] and reissues the unexplained wide variability in severity of homoplasmic mtDNA mutations . This family is the sixth maternal lineage carrying this rare mutation, the second on a European mtDNA background. Non-synonymous mtDNA variants, in particular those affecting complex I and III subunit genes, have been implicated in both variable penetrance and severity of LHON clinical expression [7, 12]. For example, one LHON family from China carrying the m.4171C>A/MT-ND1 and the m.14841A > G/MT-ND6 variant, showed an almost complete penetrance, unusual for LHON . Our genetic analysis also supports the possible role of supplementary mtDNA variants in increasing disease severity leading to the overlapping phenotype of LHON and LS. In fact, our patient’s mitogenome harbored, in addition to the m.4171C>A/MT-ND1 pathogenic mutation, three non-synonymous variants in ND subunits of complex I. These polymorphic variants are reported in a large variety of sub-haplogroups, but never within the context of haplogroup H, as in our patient. Increasing evidence shows that some non-synonymous variants may be tolerated in certain haplogroups and exert a different functional effect in others. For example, the non-synonymous variant m.3394T>C/MT-ND1 (Y30H) has been associated with LHON in the Asian B4c and F1 haplogroup backgrounds, whereas it is enriched as a common variant on the M9 background in Tibet and the C4a4 background on the Indian Deccan Plateau, exerting an adaptive role to high-altitude in Tibetan and Indian populations, respectively . It is increasingly recognized that genetic variation characterizing mtDNA haplogroups exerts slight but significant functional differences, as demonstrated by studies on cybrid cell lines carrying mtDNA from control subjects with different haplogroups . Thus, the peculiar coexistence of the three variants with the m.4171C>A/MT-ND1 mutation may explain the occurrence of the severe phenotype combining LHON and brainstem lesions.
Furthermore, our proband is a male, whereas the other two affected individuals in the same maternal lineage are females and they both had a disease limited to the optic nerve with spontaneous partial regression. This is compatible with the higher predisposition of males to LHON and with the protective role of oestrogens in female mutation carriers, as we recently demonstrated .
Idebenone administration coincided with a complete resolution of the brainstem lesions and clinical symptoms, with also a slight improvement in visual function. However, this observation must be evaluated with caution given the possibility of spontaneous visual recovery in LHON . The patients from the previously reported Korean and French families with the m.4171C>A/MT-ND1 were also characterized by a high rate of spontaneous recovery of visual acuity [8, 9]. Furthermore, we previously observed another case resembling our proband who also presented spontaneous regression of the vestibular nuclei lesions before idebenone administration . Interestingly, this patient had another rare mutation (m.3890G>A/MT-ND1) affecting complex I, associated with both LHON and Leigh phenotypes and presented in association with the regression of the vestibular nuclei abnormalities an involvement of the inferior colliculi, identical to the unilateral involvement the left inferior colliculus showed in our patient (Figure 1) .
In conclusion, homoplasmic mtDNA missense mutations affecting ND subunits of complex I display a wide variability in penetrance and clinical severity. The genetic variation of mtDNA may contribute more substantially than previously recognized to this variability, raising the issue whether complete mtDNA sequencing should be carried out routinely in these patients. Further nuclear DNA variation and complex interactions with environmental factors are probably also relevant, but these are currently poorly understood modulators.
Written informed consent was obtained from the patient for publication of this Case report and any accompanying images. A copy of the written consent is available for review by the Editor of this journal.
Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy
Mitochondrial encephalomyopathy, lactic acidosis, and stroke-like episodes
Magnetic resonance imaging
Restriction fragment length polymorphism.
The skillful scientific and technical assistance of Luisa Iommarini and Sabrina Farnè is gratefully acknowledged. This study was partially supported by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research: Progetto Futuro in Ricerca 2008 (RBFR08U07M) (to AO) and Progetti Ricerca Interesse Nazionale 2012 (to AT) and by Telethon grant GGP06233 (to VC).
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