Multiple system atrophy (MSA) is a mimic of Parkinson’s disease (PD). Neurologists suspect MSA in people with apparent PD who, in addition, have other defining features. In many people with MSA their prominent symptoms are cerebellar dysfunction (MSA-C), and these have unsteadiness and incoordination of movements. In other people with MSA the predominant symptoms are of Parkinsonism, and this type is called MSA-P.
Making a diagnosis of MSA is gratifying, but treating it is frustrating. Only about a third of people with MSA respond to the standard PD medication, Levodopa. Furthermore, MSA confers a shortened life expectancy. It is therefore important that neurologists resolve the mystery of MSA, and they are indeed hacking away at its cutting-edge.
The general assumption is that MSA is acquired rather than inherited. This assumption did not dissuade neurologists from looking for MSA genetic risk factors, and their quest has led to the discovery of a candidate MSA gene. This is called coenzyme Q2 4-hydroxybenzoate polyprenyltransferase, or simply the COQ2 gene. This gene was first touted in a 2013 paper in the New England Journal of Medicine titled Mutations in COQ2 in Familial and Sporadic Multiple-System Atrophy. Using whole genome sequencing, the authors identified COQ2 gene mutations in both sporadic and familial cases of MSA. Another paper in Neurology in 2016, titled New susceptible variant of COQ2 gene in Japanese patients with sporadic multiple system atrophy, reported that the COQ2 gene mutation is more likely in MSA-C than in other types of MSA.
You may explore the genetics of MSA further in this paper in Neurobiology of Aging titled Genetic players in multiple system atrophy: unfolding the nature of the beast.
When neurologists are considering the diagnosis of MSA, they come up against many disorders jostling to confuse them. There are of course PD and related conditions such as progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP). There is also the endless list of conditions which cause either cerebellar or autonomic dysfunction. The neurologist is usually cautious to exclude these known differential diagnoses of MSA. But what happens when they come across a mimic that isn’t in the textbooks? Such is the situation with this case report published in Movement Disorders of Concomitant Facioscapulohumeral Muscular Dystrophy and Parkinsonism Mimicking Multiple System Atrophy.
This case defies the law of parsimony, Occam’s razor. To paraphrase, this law states that a single diagnosis is the most likely cause for a patient’s clinical features. Clearly in some cases such as this, the neurologist must disregard William of Occam, and make multiple diagnoses.
Neurologists often request some tests to confirm their suspicion of MSA. The usual investigation is the painless but claustrophobic magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In MSA, this shows shrinking or atrophy of the cerebellum. It may also show the hot cross bun sign, a characteristic pattern of shrinking of the chunky middle section of the brainstem, the pons.
Some neurologists are not satisfied with this culinary sign and have explored other radiological indicators of MSA. They studied an MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging tractography (DTI tractography) and reported their findings in the Journal of Neurology. Their paper titled Characteristic diffusion tensor tractography in multiple system atrophy reports that DTI tractography appears to distinguish MSA-C from other causes of cerebellar dysfunction.
Biomarkers again, so soon after my previous blog post, What is the state of parkinson’s disease biomarkers. The whole idea behind biomarkers is their potential to make for an easier and earlier diagnosis. They are all the rage in neurodegenerative diseases, and MSA can’t be an exception. The first potential MSA biomarker is α-synuclein, the abnormal protein that is found in the brains of people with PD, MSA and Lewy body disease (LBD), the so-called synucleopathies. Researchers have now discovered that α-synuclein also resides in the skin. They carried out skin biopsies in people with PD and MSA and found skin deposits of α-synuclein in both. Writing in the journal Movement Disorders, they showed that in PD, the deposits were mainly in autonomic nerve fibers, whilst in MSA they were in the larger somatic nerves. Time to brush up those skin biopsy skills!
The second potential biomarker is optical coherence tomography (OCT). This is reported in Movement Disorders in a paper titled Progressive retinal structure abnormalities in multiple system atrophy. The authors used OCT to measure the thickness of the retina of the eye. They demonstrated that the retina is thin in both PD and MSA, but the thinning advances more rapidly in MSA than in PD. If confirmed, this would be a handy, and painless, biomarker.
The objective of all research is to arrive at effective treatments. There is unfortunately no bright treatment looming in the MSA horizon because the research so far have produced disappointing results. Such failures include Rifampicin, Fluoxetine and Lithium. There is however no scarcity of potential therapeutic candidates. The most exciting is a vaccine against MSA. For this and other research efforts read this excellent review in Advances in Clinical Neurology and Rehabilitation (ACNR) titled Updates on potential therapeutic targets in MSA.