Endemic cretinism: toward a unifying hypothesis

Thyroid. 1993 Spring;3(1):59-69. doi: 10.1089/thy.1993.3.59.


Based on our data, the clinical picture of endemic cretinism results from the product of two pathophysiological events. Both events share a common feature, namely iodine deficiency, but act at different points in time. The first event occurs in all cretins and represents the prenatal action of thyroid hormone deficiency on brain development, transmitted vertically from mother to fetus, resulting in the neurological disorder of endemic cretinism. A consistent pattern and intensity of neurological, intellectual, and audiometric deficit is common to and equally present in all types of endemic cretin. The nature of these deficits points to an intrauterine insult to the developing fetal nervous system around the time of the midtrimester. The second event represents the postnatal action of thyroid hormone deficiency on somatic as well as brain development. Whereas previous workers had attributed the differences in the clinical presentation of endemic cretinism to the presence or absence of neurological features (i.e. prenatal hypothyroidism), the distinction between the types of endemic cretin can be related to the length and severity of postnatal thyroid hormone deficiency. Endemic cretins with predominant neurological features have had only transient hypothyroidism in the postnatal period, evidenced by their near normal thyroid function and by a lack of hypothyroid clinical features. By contrast, cretins with marked myxedematous features were characterized by permanent and severe postnatal thyroid hormone deficiency. These cretins, in addition to signs of neurological damage, were typically dwarfed, sexually immature, with marked clinical features of myxedema. This second event, influenced by the thyroid gland's morphologic response to its environment (goiter or thyroid atrophy), dictates the final clinical outcome. In conclusion, our hypothesis states that the clinical expression of endemic cretinism is determined by the sum of two pathophysiologic processes. The first process is fetal hypothyroidism which results in the neurological damage of the disorder and the second process is the duration and magnitude of postnatal hypothyroidism which dictates the final clinical appearance.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • China
  • Congenital Hypothyroidism / diagnosis
  • Congenital Hypothyroidism / epidemiology
  • Congenital Hypothyroidism / etiology*
  • Congenital Hypothyroidism / prevention & control
  • Female
  • Goiter / complications
  • Humans
  • Iodine / deficiency
  • Models, Biological*
  • Nervous System Diseases / etiology
  • Pregnancy


  • Iodine