Leigh syndrome

Handb Clin Neurol. 2023:194:43-63. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-821751-1.00015-4.


Leigh syndrome, or subacute necrotizing encephalomyelopathy, was initially recognized as a neuropathological entity in 1951. Bilateral symmetrical lesions, typically extending from the basal ganglia and thalamus through brainstem structures to the posterior columns of the spinal cord, are characterized microscopically by capillary proliferation, gliosis, severe neuronal loss, and relative preservation of astrocytes. Leigh syndrome is a pan-ethnic disorder usually with onset in infancy or early childhood, but late-onset forms occur, including in adult life. Over the last six decades it has emerged that this complex neurodegenerative disorder encompasses more than 100 separate monogenic disorders associated with enormous clinical and biochemical heterogeneity. This chapter discusses clinical, biochemical and neuropathological aspects of the disorder, and postulated pathomechanisms. Known genetic causes, including defects of 16 mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) genes and approaching 100 nuclear genes, are categorized into disorders of subunits and assembly factors of the five oxidative phosphorylation enzymes, disorders of pyruvate metabolism and vitamin and cofactor transport and metabolism, disorders of mtDNA maintenance, and defects of mitochondrial gene expression, protein quality control, lipid remodeling, dynamics, and toxicity. An approach to diagnosis is presented, together with known treatable causes and an overview of current supportive management options and emerging therapies on the horizon.

Keywords: Diagnosis; Genetics; History; Leigh syndrome; Neuropathology; Pathomechanisms; Subacute necrotizing encephalomyelopathy; Treatment.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain Stem / pathology
  • Child, Preschool
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics
  • Humans
  • Leigh Disease* / diagnosis
  • Leigh Disease* / genetics
  • Leigh Disease* / pathology
  • Proteins / metabolism


  • Proteins
  • DNA, Mitochondrial