Menkes disease is caused by a defective gene that regulates the metabolism of copper in the body.
The disease primarily affects male infants, as it is an x-linked recessive disorder. Females require two defective alleles to develop the disease.
Copper accumulates at abnormally low levels in the liver and brain, but at higher than normal levels in the kidney and intestinal lining. Affected infants may be born prematurely, but appear healthy at birth and develop normally for 6 to 8 weeks. Then symptoms begin, including:
- Floppy muscle tone
- Failure to thrive
Menkes disease is also characterized by subnormal body temperature and strikingly peculiar hair, which is kinky, colorless or steel-colored, and breaks easily. There is often extensive neurodegeneration in the gray matter of the brain. Arteries in the brain may also be twisted with frayed and split inner walls. This can lead to rupture or blockage of the arteries. Weakened bones (osteoporosis) may result in fractures.
Since newborn screening for this disorder is not available, and early detection is infrequent because the clinical signs of Menkes disease are subtle in the beginning, the disease is rarely treated early enough to make a significant difference. The prognosis for babies with Menkes disease is poor. Most children with Menkes disease die within the first decade of life.
Treatment with daily copper injections may improve the outcome in Menkes disease if it begins within days after birth. Other treatment is symptomatic and supportive.