Thalamic and pallidal degenerations, neuroaxonal dystrophy, and autonomic failure

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Thalamic and pallidal degenerations, neuroaxonal dystrophy, and autonomic failure


Thalamic degeneration is a feature of several multisystem neurodegenerative disorders (Table 33.1), but can also rarely occur in a ‘pure’ form.

Table 33.1

Diseases in which thalamic degeneration may be prominent

Multiple system atrophy (glial cytoplasmic inclusions)

Spinocerebellar degenerations

Wernicke’s encephalopathy

Huntington’s disease

Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease

Menkes syndrome

Membranous lipodystrophy

Neuroaxonal dystrophy

Fatal familial insomnia



image The conditions listed in Table 33.1 should be excluded. These include fatal familial insomnia, which has a primary thalamic pattern of involvement and is a form of prion disease (see Chapter 32).

image Neuronal loss from the thalamus has been described in patients that have undergone leukotomy.


The grouping together of pallidal degenerations is based on the morphologic finding of degeneration centered on the globus pallidus, either alone or in combination with degeneration of the subthalamic nucleus or substantia nigra. These disorders have been subdivided according to the regions of the brain showing pathologic changes (Table 33.2). Clinically, pallidal degenerations are associated with a variety of movement disorders, with or without dementia. Some are familial and others sporadic.

It is difficult to evaluate the nosologic status of many of the cases described in the literature as their relationship to disorders that can now be better defined by molecular genetic and immunohistochemical techniques is uncertain. In particular, cases of dentatorubropallidoluysian atrophy (DRPLA) (see Chapter 29), spinocerebellar atrophies (see Chapter 29), multiple system atrophy (see Chapter 28), and diseases characterized by the ubiquitinated inclusions seen in ALS (see Chapter 27) are probably included in most of the historic series. Once these entities are excluded, a group of pallidal degenerations remains that can be classified on a purely descriptive basis, although it is not clear to what extent they represent distinct diseases.



Several conditions, grouped as neuroaxonal dystrophies, are characterized pathologically by the presence of axonal swellings, which are thought to develop as a result of neuronal dysfunction that produces distal axonal degeneration. In most cases, the nature of the neuronal dysfunction and the pathogenesis of the axonal swelling are poorly understood. Neuroaxonal dystrophy occurs in three contexts (Tables 33.3, 33.4)).

Table 33.3

Classification of neuroaxonal dystrophic processes

Physiologic neuroaxonal dystrophy: normal brain aging

Gracile and cuneate nuclei

Globus pallidus

Substantia nigra

Spinal anterior horns

Primary neuroaxonal dystrophy: diseases in which the main pathology is neuroaxonal dystrophy

Neuroaxonal dystrophies with PLA2G6 mutations (phospholipase A2 group VI)

 Infantile neuroaxonal dystrophy (INAD)

 Late infantile neuroaxonal dystrophy

 Juvenile neuroaxonal dystrophy

 Adult neuroaxonal dystrophy

 Childhood onset phospholipase A2 group 6-associated neurodegeneration (PLAN; atypical neuroaxonal dystrophy)

 Schindler disease (PLA2G6 mutation and co-occurrence of α-N-acetylgalactosaminidase (α-NAGA) deficiency)

Neuroaxonal leukodystrophy

 Hereditary diffuse leukoencephalopathy with axonal spheroids (HDLS)

 Familial pigmentary orthochromatic leukodystrophy (POLD)

Pantothenate kinase-associated neurodegeneration (PKAN; formerly Hallervorden–Spatz disease)

 Classical PKAN

 Atypical PKAN

 Hypoprebetalipoproteinemia, acanthocytosis, retinitis pigmentosa, and pallidal degeneration (HARP syndrome)

Nasu–Hakola disease

Giant axonal neuropathy (caused by mutation of GAN, the gigaxonin gene)

Secondary neuroaxonal dystrophy: accentuation of neuroaxonal dystrophy in other disease processes

Neurodegenerative disease

Metabolic disease

Infective disease


Dystrophic axonal swellings can be identified in sections stained with hematoxylin and eosin as rounded or elongated eosinophilic structures varying from 20 μm to 120 μm in diameter (Fig. 33.1a,b). Some dystrophic axons contain an intensely stained eosinophilic core surrounded by a paler zone (Fig. 33.1c). The swollen axons can be demonstrated by silver impregnation techniques (Fig. 33.1d). In toluidine-blue-stained resin sections, the swellings are seen to contain granular material (Fig. 33.1e). Electron microscopy shows this to consist of mitochondria, electron-dense lysosome-related bodies, tubulomembranous structures, and amorphous matrix material (Fig. 33.1f). Generally, relatively few neurofilaments are present and those that are may be displaced towards the periphery of the axon. Immunoreactivities for neurofilament protein and ubiquitin are largely confined to axonal swellings smaller than 30 μm in diameter (Fig. 33.2). Iron-containing and lipofuscin-like pigment may accumulate in axonal spheroids (Fig. 33.3), leading to the descriptive term pigment-spheroidal dystrophy.


In the following diseases, dystrophic axonal swellings are the principal pathologic abnormality in the nervous system:



The cerebrum and cerebellum usually appear atrophic and the ventricles dilated. Other features can include a rusty discoloration of the globus pallidus.

Axonal spheroids and reactive astrocytic gliosis are widely distributed in the central and peripheral nervous system (Fig. 33.5). Degeneration of the corticospinal and spinobulbar tracts is usually prominent. There is often a moderate to severe diffuse cortical Lewy body pathology as well as tau pathology with neurofibrillary tangles and neuropil threads.