Friedreich's ataxia: clinical aspects and pathogenesis

Semin Neurol. 1999;19(3):311-21. doi: 10.1055/s-2008-1040847.


Friedreich's ataxia is the most frequent inherited ataxia in Caucasians. It is caused by deficiency of frataxin, a highly conserved nuclear-encoded protein localized in mitochondria. The DNA abnormality found in 98% of Friedreich's ataxia chromosomes is the unstable hyperexpansion of a GAA triplet repeat in the first intron of the frataxin gene. Most patients are homozygous for this repeat expansion. The expanded GAA repeat causes frataxin deficiency because it interferes with the transcription of the gene by adopting a non-B (probably triple helical) structure. Longer repeats cause a more profound frataxin deficiency and are associated with earlier onset and increased severity of the disease. Molecular testing has shown that the phenotypic spectrum of Friedreich's ataxia is wider than previously thought. Up to 10% of patients with recessive or sporadic degenerative ataxia who do not fulfill the Friedreich's ataxia diagnostic criteria are homozygous for expanded alleles at the Friedreich's ataxia locus. Late age of onset, retained tendon reflexes, and lack of pyramidal signs are among the atypical features observed in some patients with a positive molecular test. Yeast cells deficient in the frataxin homologue accumulate iron in mitochondria and show increased sensitivity to oxidative stress. This suggests that Friedreich's ataxia is caused by mitochondrial dysfunction and free radical toxicity, with consequent mitochondrial damage, axonal degeneration, and cell death.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptor Proteins, Signal Transducing
  • Carrier Proteins / genetics
  • Carrier Proteins / metabolism
  • Diabetes Mellitus / etiology
  • Friedreich Ataxia / complications
  • Friedreich Ataxia / genetics*
  • Friedreich Ataxia / pathology
  • Friedreich Ataxia / physiopathology*
  • Heart Diseases / etiology
  • Humans
  • Iron-Binding Proteins*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Molecular Biology
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins / genetics
  • Nervous System Diseases / etiology
  • Point Mutation
  • Trinucleotide Repeats / genetics


  • APBA1 protein, human
  • Adaptor Proteins, Signal Transducing
  • Carrier Proteins
  • Iron-Binding Proteins
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins
  • frataxin