Background: Alexander disease (ALX) is a rare neurological disorder characterized by white matter degeneration and cytoplasmic inclusions in astrocytes called Rosenthal fibers, labeled by antibodies against glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP). Three subtypes are distinguished according to age at onset: infantile (under age 2), juvenile (age 2 to 12) and adult (over age 12). Following the identification of heterozygous mutations in GFAP that cause this disease, cases of adult-onset ALX have been increasingly reported.
Case presentation: We present a 60-year-old Japanese man with an unremarkable past and no family history of ALX. After head trauma in a traffic accident at the age of 46, his character changed, and dementia and dysarthria developed, but he remained independent. Spastic paresis and dysphagia were observed at age 57 and 59, respectively, and worsened progressively. Neurological examination at the age of 60 revealed dementia, pseudobulbar palsy, left-side predominant spastic tetraparesis, axial rigidity, bradykinesia and gaze-evoked nystagmus. Brain MRI showed tadpole-like atrophy of the brainstem, caused by marked atrophy of the medulla oblongata, cervical spinal cord and midbrain tegmentum, with an intact pontine base. Analysis of the GFAP gene revealed a heterozygous missense mutation, c.827G>T, p.R276L, which was already shown to be pathogenic in a case of pathologically proven hereditary adult-onset ALX.
Conclusion: The typical tadpole-like appearance of the brainstem is strongly suggestive of adult-onset ALX, and should lead to a genetic investigation of the GFAP gene. The unusual feature of this patient is the symmetrical involvement of the basal ganglia, which is rarely observed in the adult form of the disease. More patients must be examined to confirm, clinically and neuroradiologically, extrapyramidal involvement of the basal ganglia in adult-onset ALX.