Pathology and pathogenesis of sensory neuropathy in Friedreich's ataxia

Jennifer A. Morral, Ashley N. Davis, Jiang Qian, Benjamin B. Gelman, Arnulf H. Koeppen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Scopus citations


Friedreich's ataxia (FRDA) causes a complex neuropathological phenotype with characteristic lesions of dorsal root ganglia (DRG); dorsal spinal roots; dorsal nuclei of Clarke; spinocerebellar and corticospinal tracts; dentate nuclei; and sensory nerves. This report presents a systematic morphological analysis of sural nerves obtained by autopsy of six patients with genetically confirmed FRDA. The outstanding lesion consisted of lack of myelinated fibers whereas axons were present in normal numbers. On cross-sections, only 11% of all class III-β-tubulin-positive axons were myelinated in FRDA, contrasting with 36% in normal control nerves. Despite their paucity, thin myelinated fibers assembled compact sheaths containing the peripheral myelin proteins PMP-22, P0, and myelin basic protein. The nerves displayed major modifications in Schwann cells that were apparent by laminin 2 and S100α immunocytochemistry. Few S100α-immunoreactive cells remained detectable whereas laminin 2 reaction product was abundant. The normal honeycomb-like distribution of laminin 2 around myelinated fibers was replaced by confluent regions of reaction product that enveloped clusters of closely apposed thin axons. Electron microscopy not only confirmed the lack of myelin but also showed abnormal Schwann cells and axons. Ferritin localized to normal Schwann cell cytoplasm. In the sensory nerves of patients with FRDA, the distribution of this protein strongly resembled laminin 2, but there was no net increase of the total ferritin-reactive area. Ferroportin reaction product occurred in all axons of sural nerves in FRDA, which was at variance with dorsal spinal roots. In the pathogenesis of sensory neuropathy in FRDA, two mechanisms are likely: hypomyelination due to faulty interaction between axons and Schwann cells; and slow axonal degeneration. Neurons of DRG, satellite cells, Schwann cells, and axons of sensory nerves and dorsal spinal roots derive from the neural crest, and hypomyelination in FRDA may be attributed to defects of regulation or migration of shared precursor cells. Sural nerves in FRDA showed no convincing change in ferritin and ferroportin, militating against local iron dysmetabolism. The result stands out in contrast to the previously reported changes in dorsal spinal roots of patients with FRDA.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)97-108
Number of pages12
JournalActa Neuropathologica
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2010


  • Axons
  • Friedreich's ataxia
  • Laminin
  • Myelin sheath
  • Neural crest
  • S100 protein
  • Schwann cells
  • Sural nerve

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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