The neurology of endemic cretinism: A study of two endemias

Jean Pierre Halpern*, Steven C. Boyages, Glenden F. Maberly, John K. Collins, Creswell J. Eastman, John G L Morris

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    71 Citations (Scopus)


    Endemic cretinism is the most severe manifestation of dietary iodine deficiency. Two forms of the syndrome are traditionally described: Neurological and myxoedematous. Although this classification highlights the important neurological sequelae of the disorder it implies that myxoedematous cretins have an alternative mechanism. Further, the nature of the neurological deficit associated with both types of endemic cretinism has received scant attention in recent times considering that it remains a common disorder in many parts of the world.The nature and extent of the neurological deficit found in endemic cretinism was investigated in 104 cretins from a predominantly myxoedematous endemia in western China and in 35 cretins from central Java, Indonesia, a predominantly neurological endemia. We found a similar pattern of neurological involvement in nearly all cretins from both endemias, regardless of typ(myxoedematous or neurological), and of current thyroid function. Hallmarks of the neurological features included mental retardation, pyramidal signs in a proximal distribution and extrapyramidal signs. Many patients exhibited a characteristic gait. This probably reflected pyramidal and extrapyramidal dysfunction, although joint laxity and deformity were important contributing factors. Other frequently encountered clinical features were squint, deafness, and primitive reflexes. Cerebral computerized tomography (CT) revealed basal ganglia calcification in 15 of 50 subjects. The presence of basal ganglia calcification was confined to cretins with severe hypothyroidism. Otherwise, cerebral CT scanning demonstrated only minor abnormalities which did not contribute to the localization of the clinical deficits.We conclude that the same neurological disorder is present in both types of endemic cretinism reflecting a diffuse insult to the developing fetal nervous system. These clinical findings support the concept of maternal and fetal hypothyroxinaemia, arising from severe iodine deficiency, as the primary pathophysiological event in endemic cretinism. Differences between the two types of cretinism may be explained by continuing postnatal thyroid hormone deficiency in the myxoedematous type, which results in impaired growth, skeletal retardation and sexual immaturity.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)825-841
    Number of pages17
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - Apr 1991


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