In: GeneReviews® [Internet]. Seattle (WA): University of Washington, Seattle; 1993.
[updated ].


Clinical characteristics: MELAS (mitochondrial encephalomyopathy, lactic acidosis, and stroke-like episodes) is a multisystem disorder with protean manifestations. The vast majority of affected individuals develop signs and symptoms of MELAS between ages two and 40 years. Common clinical manifestations include stroke-like episodes, encephalopathy with seizures and/or dementia, muscle weakness and exercise intolerance, normal early psychomotor development, recurrent headaches, recurrent vomiting, hearing impairment, peripheral neuropathy, learning disability, and short stature. During the stroke-like episodes neuroimaging shows increased T2-weighted signal areas that do not correspond to the classic vascular distribution (hence the term "stroke-like"). Lactic acidemia is very common and muscle biopsies typically show ragged red fibers.

Diagnosis/testing: The diagnosis of MELAS is based on meeting clinical diagnostic criteria and identifying a pathogenic variant in one of the genes associated with MELAS. The m.3243A>G pathogenic variant in the mitochondrial gene MT-TL1 is present in approximately 80% of individuals with MELAS. Pathogenic variants in MT-TL1 or other mtDNA genes, particularly MT-ND5, can also cause this disorder.

Management: Treatment of manifestations: Treatment for MELAS is generally supportive. During the acute stroke-like episode, a bolus of intravenous arginine (500 mg/kg for children or 10 g/m2 body surface area for adults) within three hours of symptom onset is recommended followed by the administration of a similar dosage of intravenous arginine as a continuous infusion over 24 hours for the next three to five days. Coenzyme Q10, L-carnitine, and creatine have been beneficial in some individuals. Sensorineural hearing loss has been treated with cochlear implantation; seizures respond to traditional anticonvulsant therapy (although valproic acid should be avoided). Ptosis, cardiomyopathy, cardiac conduction defects, nephropathy, and migraine headache are treated in the standard manner. Diabetes mellitus is managed by dietary modification, oral hypoglycemic agents, or insulin therapy. Exercise intolerance and weakness may respond to aerobic exercise.

Prevention of primary manifestations: Once an individual with MELAS has the first stroke-like episode, arginine should be administered prophylactically to reduce the risk of recurrent stroke-like episodes. A daily dose of 150 to 300 mg/kg/day oral arginine in three divided doses is recommended.

Prevention of secondary complications: Because febrile illnesses may trigger acute exacerbations, individuals with MELAS should receive standard childhood vaccinations, flu vaccine, and pneumococcal vaccine.

Surveillance: Affected individuals and their at-risk relatives should be followed at regular intervals to monitor progression and the appearance of new symptoms. Annual ophthalmologic, audiology, and cardiologic (electrocardiogram and echocardiogram) evaluations are recommended. Annual urinalysis and fasting blood glucose level are also recommended.

Agents/circumstances to avoid: Mitochondrial toxins, including aminoglycoside antibiotics, linezolid, cigarettes, and alcohol; valproic acid for seizure treatment; metformin because of its propensity to cause lactic acidosis; dichloroacetate (DCA) because of increased risk for peripheral neuropathy.

Pregnancy management: Affected or at-risk pregnant women should be monitored for diabetes mellitus and respiratory insufficiency, which may require therapeutic interventions

Genetic counseling: MELAS is caused by pathogenic variants in mtDNA and is transmitted by maternal inheritance. The father of a proband is not at risk of having the mtDNA pathogenic variant. The mother of a proband usually has the mtDNA pathogenic variant and may or may not have symptoms. A man with a mtDNA pathogenic variant cannot transmit the variant to any of his offspring. A woman with a mtDNA pathogenic variant (whether symptomatic or asymptomatic) transmits the variant to all of her offspring. Prenatal testing and preimplantation genetic testing for MELAS is possible if a mtDNA pathogenic variant has been detected in the mother. However, because the mutational load in embryonic and fetal tissues sampled (i.e., amniocytes and chorionic villi) may not correspond to that of all fetal tissues, and because the mutational load in tissues sampled prenatally may shift in utero or after birth as a result of random mitotic segregation, prediction of the phenotype from prenatal studies cannot be made with certainty.

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