Pathology of mitochondrial encephalomyopathies

Can J Neurol Sci. 2005 May;32(2):152-66. doi: 10.1017/s0317167100003929.


Muscle biopsy provides the best tissue to confirm a mitochondrial cytopathy. Histochemical features often correlate with specific syndromes and facilitate the selection of biochemical and genetic studies. Ragged-red fibres nearly always indicate a combination defect of respiratory complexes I and IV. Increased punctate lipid within myofibers is a regular feature of Kearns-Sayre and PEO, but not of MELAS and MERRF. Total deficiency of succinate dehydrogenase indicates a severe defect in Complex II; total absence of cytochrome-c-oxidase activity in all myofibres correlates with a severe deficiency of Complex IV or of coenzyme-Q10. The selective loss of cytochrome-c-oxidase activity in scattered myofibers, particularly if accompanied by strong succinate dehydrogenase staining in these same fibres, is good evidence of mitochondrial cytopathy and often of a significant mtDNA mutation, though not specific for Complex IV disorders. Glycogen may be excessive in ragged-red zones. Ultrastructure provides morphological evidence of mitochondrial cytopathy, in axons and endothelial cells as well as myocytes. Abnormal axonal mitochondria may contribute to neurogenic atrophy of muscle, a secondary chronic feature. Quantitative determinations of respiratory chain enzyme complexes, with citrate synthase as an internal control, confirm the histochemical impressions or may be the only evidence of mitochondrial disease. Biological and technical artifacts may yield falsely low enzymatic activities. Genetic studies screen common point mutations in mtDNA. The brain exhibits characteristic histopathological alterations in mitochondrial diseases. Skin biopsy is useful for mitochondrial ultrastructure in smooth erector pili muscles and axons; skin fibroblasts may be grown in culture. Mitochondrial alterations occur in many nonmitochondrial diseases and also may be induced by drugs and toxins.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Axons / pathology
  • Axons / ultrastructure
  • Biopsy / standards
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain / ultrastructure
  • Electron Transport Complex II / metabolism
  • Enzymes / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / metabolism
  • Mitochondria / pathology*
  • Mitochondria / ultrastructure
  • Mitochondrial Encephalomyopathies / metabolism
  • Mitochondrial Encephalomyopathies / pathology*
  • Mitochondrial Encephalomyopathies / physiopathology
  • Muscle Fibers, Skeletal / metabolism
  • Muscle Fibers, Skeletal / pathology*
  • Muscle Fibers, Skeletal / ultrastructure
  • Muscle, Skeletal / metabolism
  • Muscle, Skeletal / pathology*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / ultrastructure


  • Enzymes
  • respiratory complex II
  • Electron Transport Complex II