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Research Article

Biochemical and neuropsychological effects of elevated plasma phenylalanine in patients with treated phenylketonuria. A model for the study of phenylalanine and brain function in man.

W Krause, M Halminski, L McDonald, P Dembure, R Salvo, D Freides and L Elsas

Published January 1985

Phenylketonuria provides a human model for the study of the effect of phenylalanine on brain function. Although irreversible mental retardation is preventable through newborn diagnosis and dietary phenylalanine restriction, controversy exists regarding the effects of increased concentrations of phenylalanine in older patients. We have studied ten older, treated, phenylketonuric patients using a triple-blind, multiple trials, crossover design. Each patient was tested at the end of each of three 1-wk periods of high or low phenylalanine intakes. Tests included a repeatable battery of neuropsychological tests, analysis of plasma amino acids, and measurement of urine amino acids, phenyl organic acids, dopamine, and serotonin. In all 10 patients plasma phenylalanine rose (900-4,000 microM). In 9 of 10 patients there was an inverse relationship between plasma phenylalanine and urine dopamine excretion. When blood phenylalanine was elevated, these patients had prolonged performance times on neuropsychological tests of higher but not lower integrative function. Urinary serotonin fell during phenylalanine loading in six patients. The concentration of phenylacids in the urine was not proportional to the plasma phenylalanine at concentrations below 1.5 mM. In one patient, neither performance time nor dopamine excretion varied as blood phenylalanine rose or fell. We interpret these data as follows: blood phenylalanine above 1.3 mM impairs performance on neuropsychological tests of higher integrative function, this effect is reversible, and one mechanism may involve impaired biogenic amine synthesis.

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