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Methylmalonic Acidemia Brief Overview of Methylmalonic Acidemia

  • Author: Pitchaiah Mandava, MD, PhD; Chief Editor: Helmi L Lutsep, MD  more...
Updated: Oct 12, 2015

Brief Overview of Methylmalonic Acidemia

Methylmalonic acidemia is an autosomal recessive disorder of amino acid metabolism, involving a defect in the conversion of methylmalonyl-coenzyme A (CoA) to succinyl-CoA. Patients typically present at the age of 1 month to 1 year with neurologic manifestations, such as seizure, encephalopathy, and stroke.[1, 2, 3] Several cases have involved stroke in the bilateral globus pallidi as a result of methylmalonic acidemia.

There is reportedly 1 case of ethylmalonic acidemia in 25,000-48,000 population. Nyhan and Sakati stated that the true prevalence may be higher because many neonatal deaths may be caused by unrecognized metabolic disorders.[4]

For patient education information, see eMedicineHealth's Brain and Nervous System Center, as well as Stroke.

Go to Neuro-vascular Diseases for more information on metabolic diseases and stroke.


Etiology and Neuropathology

The main pathway of methylmalonyl-CoA production involves the metabolism of isoleucine, valine, threonine, and methionine. To a lesser extent, odd-chain fatty acid and cholesterol degradation also contribute.

Conversion of methylmalonyl-CoA to succinyl-CoA requires the enzyme methylmalonyl-CoA mutase and the cofactor 5'-deoxyadenosylcobalamin. Methylmalonic acidemia can manifest itself differently depending on the following factors[5] :

  • Absence of enzyme (mut0)
  • Reduction in enzyme activity (mut-)
  • Defect in the synthesis of 5'-deoxyadenosylcobalamin ( cblA, cblB, cblH)
  • Defect in cobalamin metabolism ( cblC, cblD, cblF), which appears as both methylmalonic acidemia and homocystinemia (see Homocystinuria/Homocysteinemia) [6]

Reduced blood flow or faulty oxidative metabolism may cause strokes in methylmalonic acidemia. The sequence of events in reduced blood flow may be acidosis, hypocapnia, and vasoconstriction. Several magnetic resonance spectroscopic studies have shown that lactate accumulates in areas of the brain that are damaged in methylmalonic acidemia.

Some authors suggest that the accumulation of methylmalonic acid and odd-chain fatty acids may be directly toxic to neuronal and glial cells. This toxic effect may impair oxidative metabolism, leading to infarctions. An alternate hypothesis suggests that toxic metabolites may result from treatment with cyanocobalamin, which metabolizes to cyanide, a known central nervous system toxin.

Based on reports of liver transplantation reports meant to address the issue of metabolic derangement in methylmalonic acidemia, the neurologic consequences of methylmalonic acidemia may not be a result of metabolic abnormalities in the liver; rather, they may be a local metabolic disturbance in the brain. Liver transplantation did not prevent further neurologic worsening or occurrence of strokelike episodes.[7, 8, 9, 10, 11]

Candidate genes for cblA, cblB, designated MMAA and MMAB, and mutations of these genes have been elucidated.[12, 13, 14, 30]

A knock-out mouse model similar to the mut0 human form of methylmalonic acidemia has been developed.[15] This model may facilitate further research into the pathophysiology of the disease and broaden its therapeutic options.


Evaluation of Methylmalonic Acidemia

Children with methylmalonic acidemia may be healthy at birth and develop symptoms soon after starting protein intake. The patient's family history may be positive for methylmalonic acidemia (eg, siblings with similar episodes of recurrent illnesses or with acidopathy).


In most children, the disease is diagnosed in the middle of an episode of metabolic decompensation.[16] Vomiting, dehydration, lethargy, seizures, recurrent infections, and progressive encephalopathy are some features of methylmalonic acidemia. These metabolic perturbations can be caused by an infection or a change in feeding habit. Some children may present with strokes during a metabolic crisis.

Methylmalonic acidemia due to derangement of adenosylcobalamin synthesis (cblA, cblB, cblH) and cobalamin catabolism (cblC, cblD, cblF) may have features not shared by pure methylmalonyl-CoA mutase disorders.


Hypotonia, lethargy, failure to thrive, hepatosplenomegaly, and monilial infections are some classic findings. In patients with methylmalonic acidemia, acute onset of choreoathetosis, dystonia, dysphagia, or dysarthria should alert the physician to the possibility of stroke. Neurologic manifestations may be present, even in the absence of more traditional findings.


Diagnosis of Methylmalonic Acidemia

Signs, symptoms, and nonspecific presentation generally make the diagnosis of methylmalonic acidemia difficult.

If the patient's family or sibling history suggests a diagnosis of acidemia, prenatal and neonatal diagnosis must be pursued aggressively. Early diagnosis and treatment may delay the progression of symptoms

The more common etiologies of stroke are broadly classified as cardiac, infectious, hematologic, vascular, genetic, or metabolic. The following problems are associated with pediatric strokes:

  • Cyanotic heart disease
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Endocarditis
  • Ehlers-Danlos syndrome
  • Marfan syndrome
  • Mitochondrial cytopathies
  • Moyamoya syndrome
  • Organic acidurias
  • Patent foramen ovale
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Thrombocytopenia

Go to Inherited Metabolic Disorders, First Seizure: Pediatric Perspective, Complex Partial Seizures, Moyamoya Disease, Neurofibromatosis, Type 1, Posterior Cerebral Artery Stroke, Staphylococcal Meningitis, and Tuberous Sclerosis for more information on these topics


The following conditions should also be considered in the evaluation of cases of suspected methylmalonic acidemia:


Diagnostic Tests

Perform blood, imaging, and cardiac studies as part of the workup in a patient in whom stroke is suspected. Exclude other various causes of strokes in the pediatric population.

If the clinical picture suggests a metabolic disorder, a presumptive diagnosis can be made on the basis of blood analysis for ammonia levels, amino acids, and organic acids. Also perform concomitant urinalysis for amino acids and organic acids.

When acidosis is suspected on the basis of electrolyte and arterial blood gas (ABG) abnormalities, common causes of ketoacidosis and lactic acidosis must be eliminated first. Diabetes, alcoholic ketoacidosis, liver disease, shock, anoxic and/or ischemic injury of tissues, and seizures are often associated with acidosis.

Blood levels of ammonia, glycine, and methylmalonic acid are elevated. Serum levels of propionic acid, which is upstream in the metabolic pathway of amino acids, may also be elevated. Urine levels of methylmalonic acid, methylcitrate, propionic acid, and 3-hydroxypropionate levels are high. Definitive diagnosis is made after enzyme analysis of fibroblasts in search of the specific enzyme abnormality.

Complete blood cell (CBC) counts may reveal neutropenia, anemia, and thrombocytopenia, the result of the downregulation of hematopoietic growth, which may also be present during acute episodes of infection or metabolic decompensation.


Neuroimaging, MRI, and CT Scanning

Neuroimaging study is always warranted when patients have a change in neurologic status (eg, seizures, lethargy, progressive encephalopathy, choreoathetosis, dystonia, dysarthria).

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) studies have commonly shown bilateral lesions of the globus pallidus in patients with methylmalonic acidemia.[17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25] Imaging abnormalities extending beyond the basal ganglia have also been reported. These abnormalities include delayed myelination, immature gyral pattern and periventricular white matter lesions.

Small hemorrhages in the brainstem and cerebellum have also been reported, and intracranial hemorrhage can occur if the metabolic derangement includes a bleeding diathesis.


Management of Methylmalonic Acidemia

In an acute phase, identify and treat intercurrent infections that triggered the acidotic episode. Correct the acidosis; dialysis may be required in cases of severe ketoacidosis and hyperammonemia. A case report noted a decrease in ammonia levels with the use of carbamylglutamate in preference to dialysis alone.[26]

Dietary modifications must be made in a hospital setting. Outcomes are better in patients with cobalamin-responsive disease than in those with the cobalamin-nonresponsive disease, in association with dietary changes and supplementation of carnitine and cobalamin.[31, 32]

Immediately prescribe a protein-restricted diet when an acidemia is a diagnostic consideration. This modification decreases the key amino acids (eg, isoleucine, valine, threonine, methionine) that enter the metabolic pathway.

Try cyanocobalamin, even in patients whose disease does not respond while a definitive diagnosis is pending. The rationale is that adenosylcobalamin acts as a cofactor for methylmalonyl-CoA mutase, which converts methylmalonyl-CoA to succinyl CoA.

Levo-carnitine (L-carnitine) is a dietary supplement that is also used to treat all patients with methylmalonic acidemia, who apparently have a relative carnitine deficiency. The D-isomer of carnitine may not be therapeutic.

Medical management of methylmalonic acidemia

Implement a protein-restricted diet (0.5-1.5 g/kg/d) with L-carnitine and cobalamin supplementation.

Cobalamin supplementation may help because cobalamin is a cofactor in the enzymatic conversion of methylmalonyl-coenzyme A (CoA) to succinyl-CoA. This therapy can be started while the diagnosis is being confirmed. If cobalamin supplementation is not helpful, restrict the patient's isoleucine, threonine, methionine, and valine intake.

L-carnitine, an enzyme involved in the metabolism of long-chain fatty acids, buffers the acyl-CoA metabolites that accumulate with protein-restricted diets. Acyl-carnitine produced by this buffering action is excreted in the urine.

Response to cobalamin supplementation and dietary changes may be monitored in terms of clinical and laboratory improvement. Quantitative measurement of methylmalonic acid in the urine can monitor the success of therapy.

Candidal infection may be the first sign that treatment adjustments are necessary.

Liver transplantation alone or in conjunction with kidney transplantation has been attempted. Organ transplantation may not prevent future neurologic damage or reverse old damage.[7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 27, 28, 33]

Transfer considerations

Acidemias are complex diseases and require multispecialty care for diagnosis and treatment. Patients are best evaluated and treated in tertiary care centers.

In the acute phase of illness, life-threatening issues, such as acidosis and the need for dialysis, can be assessed and treated locally.

After stabilization, patients may be transferred if the necessary treatment and/or diagnostic modalities are not available locally.


Consult a neurologist when seizures, choreoathetosis, dysarthria, or stroke occur. Consider offering genetic counseling to the patient's family, especially if more than 1 child has aminoacidopathy.

Consultation with a registered dietitian is also in order, because protein restriction is an essential part of treatment, and consider consultation with a physical and occupational therapist, as they may help in functionally retraining patients.

Patient education

Education of the patient's family, specifically the parents, plays a critical role in the care of patients. Recognition of poor feeding, vomiting, dehydration, hypotonia, respiratory distress, and seizure may help in identifying ongoing metabolic decompensation.


Outcomes of Methylmalonic Acidemia

Over the last 3 decades, observations of patients have revealed that their response to treatment is correlated with their prognosis. Of the 6 recognized defects in methylmalonate metabolism, cblA has the best prognosis; mut0, the worst. The remaining classes (cblB, cblC, cblD, cblF) have intermediate prognoses. cblH is a newly identified variant of cblA.

Patients with cobalamin-responsive disease may reach some early developmental milestones, and they may have long-term prognoses better than those of the other group. However, this group remains at risk for acute decompensation, which may result in clinical signs and symptoms of globus pallidal lesions.

In a cross-sectional study of 35 patients from the United Kingdom, early-onset cobalamin-nonresponders had the worst outcomes, with a median survival of approximately 6 years.[29] Neurologic outcomes remained unchanged despite dietary modifications and management of infections.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Pitchaiah Mandava, MD, PhD Assistant Professor, Department of Neurology, Baylor College of Medicine; Consulting Staff, Department of Neurology, Michael E DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center

Pitchaiah Mandava, MD, PhD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, Stroke Council of the American Heart Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Thomas A Kent, MD Professor and Director of Stroke Research and Education, Department of Neurology, Baylor College of Medicine; Chief of Neurology, Michael E DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center

Thomas A Kent, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, Royal Society of Medicine, Stroke Council of the American Heart Association, American Neurological Association, New York Academy of Sciences, Sigma Xi

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Howard S Kirshner, MD Professor of Neurology, Psychiatry and Hearing and Speech Sciences, Vice Chairman, Department of Neurology, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine; Director, Vanderbilt Stroke Center; Program Director, Stroke Service, Vanderbilt Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital; Consulting Staff, Department of Neurology, Nashville Veterans Affairs Medical Center

Howard S Kirshner, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Neurological Association, American Society of Neurorehabilitation, American Academy of Neurology, American Heart Association, American Medical Association, National Stroke Association, Phi Beta Kappa, Tennessee Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Helmi L Lutsep, MD Professor and Vice Chair, Department of Neurology, Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine; Associate Director, OHSU Stroke Center

Helmi L Lutsep, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, American Stroke Association

Disclosure: Medscape Neurology Editorial Advisory Board for: Stroke Adjudication Committee, CREST2.

Additional Contributors

Richard M Zweifler, MD Chief of Neurosciences, Sentara Healthcare; Professor and Chair of Neurology, Eastern Virginia Medical School

Richard M Zweifler, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, American Stroke Association, Stroke Council of the American Heart Association, American Heart Association, American Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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