Hyperekplexia in neonates

Postgrad Med J. 2001 Sep;77(911):570-2. doi: 10.1136/pmj.77.911.570.


Hyperekplexia (startle disease) is a rare non-epileptic disorder characterised by an exaggerated persistent startle reaction to unexpected auditory, somatosensory and visual stimuli, generalised muscular rigidity, and nocturnal myoclonus. The genetic basis is a mutation usually of the arginine residue 271 leading to neuronal hyperexcitability by impairing glycinergic inhibition. Hyperekplexia is usually familial, most often autosomal dominant with complete penetrance and variable expression. It can present in fetal life as abnormal intrauterine movements, or later at any time from the neonatal period to adulthood. Early manifestations include abnormal responses to unexpected auditory, visual, and somatosensory stimuli such as sustained tonic spasm, exaggerated startle response, and fetal posture with clenched fists and anxious stare. The tonic spasms may mimic generalised tonic seizures, leading to apnoea and death. Consistent generalised flexor spasm in response to tapping of the nasal bridge (without habituation) is the clinical hallmark of hyperekplexia. Electroencephalography may show fast spikes initially during the tonic spasms, followed by slowing of background activity with eventual flattening corresponding to the phase of apnoea bradycardia and cyanosis. Electromyography shows a characteristic almost permanent muscular activity with periods of electrical quietness. Nerve conduction velocity is normal. No specific computed tomography findings have been reported yet. Clonazepam, a gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptor agonist, is the treatment of choice for hypertonia and apnoeic episodes. It, however, may not influence the degree of stiffness significantly. A simple manoeuvre like forced flexion of the head and legs towards the trunk is known to be life saving when prolonged stiffness impedes respiration.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Muscle Rigidity / etiology
  • Muscle Rigidity / physiopathology
  • Reflex, Abnormal / genetics
  • Reflex, Abnormal / physiology*
  • Reflex, Startle / genetics
  • Reflex, Startle / physiology*