Autonomic failure in neurodegenerative disorders

Semin Neurol. 2003 Dec;23(4):351-63. doi: 10.1055/s-2004-817719.


Autonomic failure with orthostatic and postprandial hypotension, bowel and bladder disturbances, and sexual dysfunction are frequent, disabling features in patients with the three most prevalent neurodegenerative movement disorders: Parkinson's disease (PD), dementia with Lewy bodies and multiple system atrophy (MSA), and the related neurodegenerative Lewy-body disorder characterized by isolated severe autonomic failure (pure autonomic failure, PAF). All of these disorders have in common the presence of alpha-synuclein in the cytoplasmic precipitates found in neurons in Lewy body disorders or glia in MSA. Autonomic failure with disabling orthostatic hypotension is the clinical hallmark of PAF. It may also be the initial presentation of MSA, making diagnosis difficult. Within a few years, however, MSA patients develop movement disorders, which are differentiated from PD by the paucity of unilateral resting tremor, the lack of response to levodopa, and their rapidly progressive nature, resulting in disability and death in 7 to 8 years. Moderately effective treatment is available for autonomic symptoms, but management of movement disorders remains unsuccessful. Discoveries relevant to physiology and common pathological conditions were initially made in patients with autonomic failure. Meals induce profound hypotension in these patients. Conversely, commonly used nasal decongestants can produce substantial pressor effects. Even 500 mL of water can increase blood pressure by a previously unrecognized sympathetic reflex. Residual sympathetic tone is able to induce sustained supine hypertension in MSA, because it is resolved after ganglionic blockade. These phenomena were not previously recognized because of the buffering capacity of the baroreflex, but were unmasked in autonomic failure patients.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autonomic Nervous System Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Autonomic Nervous System Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Autonomic Nervous System Diseases / therapy
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Humans
  • Multiple System Atrophy / diagnosis
  • Multiple System Atrophy / physiopathology
  • Multiple System Atrophy / therapy
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / therapy