Neuropsychological development in children with early and continuously treated phenylketonuria : association with biochemical markers

Sharman, Rachael Rebecca (2011) Neuropsychological development in children with early and continuously treated phenylketonuria : association with biochemical markers. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


PKU is a genetically inherited inborn error of metabolism caused by a deficiency of the enzyme phenylalanine hydroxylase. The failure of this enzyme causes incomplete metabolism of protein ingested in the diet, specifically the conversion of one amino acid, phenylalanine, to tyrosine, which is a precursor to the neurotransmitter dopamine. Rising levels of phenylalanine is toxic to the developing brain, disrupting the formation of white matter tracts. The impact of tyrosine deficiency is not as well understood, but is hypothesized to lead to a low dopamine environment for the developing brain.
Detection in the newborn period and continuous treatment (a low protein phe-restricted diet supplemented with phenylalanine-free protein formulas) has resulted in children with early and continuously treated PKU now developing normal I.Q. However, deficits in executive function (EF) are common, leading to a rate of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) up to five times the norm. EF worsens with exposure to higher phenylalanine levels, however recent research has demonstrated that a high phenylalanine to tyrosine ratio (phenylalanine:tyrosine ratio), which is hypothesised to lead to poorer dopamine function, has a more negative impact on EF than phenylalanine levels alone. Research and treatment of PKU is currently phenylalanine-focused, with little investigation of the impact of tyrosine on neuropsychological development. There is no current consensus as to the veracity of tyrosine monitoring or treatment in this population. Further, the research agenda in this population has demonstrated a primary focus on EF impairment alone, even though there may be additional neuropsychological skills compromised (e.g., mood, visuospatial deficits).
The aim of this PhD research was to identify residual neuropsychological deficits in a cohort of children with early and continuously treated phenylketonuria, at two time points in development (early childhood and early adolescence), separated by eight years. In addition, this research sought to determine which biochemical markers were associated with neuropsychological impairments. A clinical practice survey was also undertaken to ascertain the current level of monitoring/treatment of tyrosine in this population.

Thirteen children with early and continuously treated PKU were tested at mean age 5.9 years and again at mean age 13.95 years on several neuropsychological measures. Four children with hyperphenylalaninemia (a milder version of PKU) were also tested at both time points and provide a comparison group in analyses. Associations between neuropsychological function and biochemical markers were analysed. A between groups analysis in adolescence was also conducted (children with PKU compared to their siblings) on parent report measures of EF and mood.

Minor EF impairments were evident in the PKU group by age 6 years and these persisted into adolescence. Life-long exposure to high phenylalanine:tyrosine ratio and/or low tyrosine independent of phenylalanine were significantly associated with EF impairments at both time points. Over half the children with PKU showed severe impairment on a visuospatial task, and this was associated only with concurrent levels of tyrosine in adolescence. Children with PKU also showed a statistically significant decline in a language comprehension task from 6 years to adolescence (going from normal to subnormal), this deficit was associated with lifetime levels of phenylalanine. In comparison, the four children with hyperphenylalaninemia demonstrated normal function at both time points, across all measures.

No statistically significant differences were detected between children with PKU and their siblings on the parent report of EF and mood. However, depressive symptoms were significantly correlated with: EF; long term high phe:tyr exposure; and low tyrosine levels independent of phenylalanine.

The practice survey of metabolic clinics from 12 countries indicated a high level of variability in terms of monitoring/treatment of tyrosine in this population. Whilst over 80% of clinics surveyed routinely monitored tyrosine levels in their child patients, 25% reported treatment strategies to increase tyrosine (and thereby lower the phenylalanine:tyrosine ratio) under a variety of patient presentation conditions.

Overall, these studies have shown that EF impairments associated with PKU provide support for the dopamine-deficiency model. A language comprehension task showed a different trajectory, serving a timely reminder that non-EF functions also remain vulnerable in this population; and that normal function in childhood does not guarantee normal function by adolescence. Mood impairments were associated with EF impairments as well as long term measures of phenylalanine:tyrosine and/or tyrosine. The implications of this research for enhanced clinical guidelines are discussed given varied current practice.

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ID Code: 46646
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor: Sullivan, Karen & Young, Ross
Keywords: phenylketonuria, phenylalanine, tyrosine, dopamine, executive function, working memory, phenylalanine:tyrosine ratio, depression, practice survey
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Health
Current > Institutes > Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation
Current > Schools > School of Psychology & Counselling
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 26 Oct 2011 01:23
Last Modified: 26 Oct 2011 01:23

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