MELAS Syndrome

Updated: Jan 21, 2020
  • Author: Stephen L Nelson, Jr, MD, PhD, FAACPDM, FAAN, FAAP, FANA; Chief Editor: Luis O Rohena, MD, PhD, FAAP, FACMG  more...
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Mitochondrial myopathy, encephalopathy, lactic acidosis, and stroke (MELAS) syndrome is a multisystem and progressive neurodegenerative disorder. Patients may present sporadically or as members of maternal pedigrees with a wide variety of clinical presentations. The typical presentation of patients with MELAS syndrome includes features that comprise the name of the disorder, such as mitochondrial encephalomyopathy, lactic acidosis, and strokelike episodes. Other features, such as headaches, seizures, neuropsychiatric dysfunction, diabetes mellitus, sensorineural hearing loss, cardiac disease, short stature, endocrinopathies, muscle weakness, exercise intolerance, gastrointestinal dysmotility, and dementia are clearly part of the disorder.



Strokelike episodes and mitochondrial myopathy characterize MELAS syndrome. Multisystemic organ involvement is seen, including the CNS, skeletal muscle, eye, cardiac muscle, and, more rarely, the GI and renal systems. [1, 2]

Approximately 80% of patients with the clinical characteristics of MELAS syndrome have a heteroplasmic A-to-G point mutation in the dihydrouridine loop of the transfer RNA (tRNA)Leu (UUR)gene at base pair (bp) 3243 (ie, 3243 A → G mutation). [3] However, other mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) mutations are observed, including the m.3244 G → A, m.3258 T → C, m.3271 T → C, and m.3291 T → C in the mitochondrial tRNALeu(UUR)gene. [4]

The pathogenesis of the strokelike episodes in MELAS syndrome has not been completely elucidated. [5] These metabolic strokelike episodes may be nonvascular and due to transient oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS) dysfunction within the brain parenchyma. A mitochondrial angiopathy of small vessel is responsible for contrast enhancement of affected regions and mitochondrial abnormalities of endothelial cells and smooth muscle cells of blood vessels. The multisystem dysfunction in patients with MELAS syndrome may be due to both parenchymal and vascular OXPHOS defects. Increased production of free radicals in association with an OXPHOS defect leading to vasoconstriction may offset the effect of potent vasodilators (eg, nitric oxide).

The unusual strokelike episodes and higher morbidity observed in MELAS syndrome may be secondary to alterations in nitric oxide homeostasis that cause microvascular damage. Nitric oxide can bind the cytochrome c oxidase–positive sites in the blood vessels present in the CNS, displacing heme-bound oxygen and resulting in decreased oxygen availability in the surrounding tissue and decreased free nitric oxide. Furthermore, coupling of the vascular mitochondrial dysfunction with cortical spreading depression might underlie the selective distribution of ischemic lesions in the posterior cortex in these subjects.

Mutations in this disorder affect mitochondrial tRNA function, leading to the disruption of the global process of intramitochondrial protein synthesis. Measurements of respiratory enzyme activities in intact mitochondria have revealed that more than one half of the patients with MELAS syndrome may have complex I or complex I + IV deficiency. A close relationship is apparent between MELAS and complex I deficiency. The decreased protein synthesis may ultimately lead to the observed decrease in respiratory chain activity by reduced translation of UUG-rich genes such as ND6 (component of complex I). [6]

In addition, studies revealed that the 3243 A → G mutation produces a severe combined respiratory chain defect in myoblasts, with almost complete lack of assembly of complex I, IV, and V, and a slight decrease of assembled complex III. This assembly defect occurs despite a modest reduction in the overall rate of mitochondrial protein synthesis. Translation of some polypeptides is decreased, and evidence of amino acid misincorporation is noted in others.




United States

No estimates concerning the prevalence of the common MELAS mutation are available for the North American population; however, the syndrome has been observed to be less frequent in blacks.


The first assessment of the epidemiology of mitochondrial disorders found a prevalence of more than 10.2 per 100,000 for the m.3243A → G mutation in the adult Finnish population. If the assumption is made that all first-degree maternal relatives of a verified mutation carrier also harbor the mutation, prevalence increases to more than 16.3 per 100,000. This high prevalence suggests that mitochondrial disorders may constitute one of the largest diagnostic categories of neurogenetic diseases among adults. In Northern England, the prevalence of this mutation in the adult population has been determined to be approximately 1 per 13,000.


MELAS syndrome has a high morbidity and mortality. The encephalomyopathy, associated with strokelike episodes followed by hemiplegia and hemianopia, is severe. Focal and general convulsions may occur in association with these episodes.

Other abnormalities that may be observed are ventricular dilatation, cortical atrophy, and basal ganglia calcification. Mental deterioration usually progresses after repeated episodic attacks. Psychiatric abnormalities and cognitive decline (eg, altered mental status, schizophrenia) may accompany the strokelike episodes. Bipolar disorder is another psychiatric abnormality observed in MELAS syndrome. Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) with or without additional neurological features can be early presentations of the m.3243 A → G mutation. Myopathy may be debilitating. The encephalopathy may progress to dementia; eventually, the clinical course rapidly declines, leading to severe disability and premature death.

Another cause of high mortality is the less common feature of cardiac involvement, which can include hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, hypertension, and conduction abnormalities, such as atrioventricular blocks, long QT syndrome, or Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. Subjects with MELAS syndrome were found to have increased ascending aortic stiffness and enlarged aortic dimensions suggesting vascular remodeling. Aortic root dissection was found in one patient with MELAS syndrome. [7] Some patients may develop Leigh syndrome (ie, subacute necrotizing encephalopathy). Patients may develop renal failure due to focal segmental glomerulosclerosis.

More rarely, these patients may exhibit severe GI dysmotility and endocrine dysfunction, including hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.


MELAS syndrome has no reported racial predilection.


MELAS syndrome has no reported sexual predilection.


In many patients with MELAS syndrome, presentation occurs with the first strokelike episode, usually when an individual is aged 4-15 years. Less often, onset of disease may occur in infancy with delayed developmental milestones and learning disability. One presentation of the disorder was reported in a 4-month-old infant.



MELAS syndrome widely varies in presentation; however, patients in general tend to have a poor prognosis and outcome. The encephalomyopathy tends to be severe and progressive to dementia. The patient with MELAS syndrome may end up in a state of cachexia. Currently, no therapies have proven efficacy.


Patient Education

Once the diagnosis is established, refer the patient and family for genetic counseling and evaluation of other family members who may be at risk of being affected.

Educate the family concerning further deteriorations and complications (eg, cardiomyopathy, nephrotic syndrome, deafness, diabetes, GI difficulties) that may affect the proband. In general, educate the family about maintaining a good nutritional and hydration status, and discuss information concerning current trials (eg, use of dichloroacetate for persistent lactic acidosis in individuals with MELAS syndrome).

For excellent patient education resources, visit eMedicineHealth's Brain and Nervous System Center. Also, see eMedicineHealth's patient education article Stroke.