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Late-Onset Adrenoleukodystrophy Associated With Long-Standing Psychiatric Symptoms

J Clin Psychiatry 1999;60(7):460-468

Background: It is not commonly appreciated that patients with adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) can first present in adulthood with psychiatric symptoms.

Method: This case study involved a 31-year-old man who was referred for a neuropsychiatric assessment of tardive dyskinesia and treatment-resistant psychosis. Upon neurologic examination, he was found to have spasticity, marked hyperreflexia with clonus, and bilateral Babinski signs. T2-weighted magnetic resonance imaging demonstrated severe white matter disease. Metabolic screening revealed abnormalities of very long chain fatty acids consistent with the diagnosis of ALD. These results prompted us to review the literature on late-onset ALD with attention to (1) the nature of the associated psychiatric and neurologic symptoms, (2) the neuroimaging abnormalities associated with this disorder, and (3) treatment considerations.

Results:Individuals with adult-onset ALD may initially present with psychiatric symptomatology. Most commonly, these patients manifest signs of mania including disinhibition, impulsivity, increased spending, hypersexuality, loudness, and perseveration. ALD patients will often have upper motor neuron findings on neurologic examination. Despite the name of the disease, patients with ALD may not have clinical evidence of adrenal dysfunction. Neuroimaging reveals diffuse, confluent white matter lesions that typically originate in the parieto-occipital region. Both neuroleptic and anticholinergic medications may result in significant side effects with little resolution of the underlying psychiatric symptoms.

Conclusion: This case study and review of the literature illustrate the importance of performing neurologic and radiological examinations on all psychiatric patients with chronic illnesses. We emphasize the importance of reexamining and reimaging patients who are not responding to standard treatment. The clinical problem of "treatment resistance" should be seen as an indication that other diagnoses, such as an underlying metabolic disorder, need to be considered.