Wilson's disease: update on pathogenesis, biomarkers and treatments

J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2021 Oct;92(10):1053-1061. doi: 10.1136/jnnp-2021-326123. Epub 2021 Aug 2.


Wilson's disease is an autosomal-recessive disorder of copper metabolism caused by mutations in ATP7B and associated with neurological, psychiatric, ophthalmological and hepatic manifestations. Decoppering treatments are used to prevent disease progression and reduce symptoms, but neurological outcomes remain mixed. In this article, we review the current understanding of pathogenesis, biomarkers and treatments for Wilson's disease from the neurological perspective, with a focus on recent advances. The genetic and molecular mechanisms associated with ATP7B dysfunction have been well characterised, but despite extensive efforts to identify genotype-phenotype correlations, the reason why only some patients develop neurological or psychiatric features remains unclear. We discuss pathological processes through which copper accumulation leads to neurodegeneration, such as mitochondrial dysfunction, the role of brain iron metabolism and the broader concept of selective neuronal vulnerability in Wilson's disease. Delayed diagnoses continue to be a major problem for patients with neurological presentations. We highlight limitations in our current approach to making a diagnosis and novel diagnostic biomarkers, including the potential for newborn screening programmes. We describe recent progress in developing imaging and wet (fluid) biomarkers for neurological involvement, including findings from quantitative MRI and other neuroimaging studies, and the development of a semiquantitative scoring system for assessing radiological severity. Finally, we cover the use of established and novel chelating agents, paradoxical neurological worsening, and progress developing targeted molecular and gene therapy for Wilson's disease, before discussing future directions for translational research.

Keywords: Wilson's disease.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Copper / metabolism*
  • Copper-Transporting ATPases / genetics*
  • Hepatolenticular Degeneration / diagnosis*
  • Hepatolenticular Degeneration / genetics
  • Hepatolenticular Degeneration / therapy
  • Humans
  • Iron / metabolism
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging


  • Biomarkers
  • Copper
  • Iron
  • Copper-Transporting ATPases