Steven G. Little and Jennifer E. Rodemaker
Lesch-Nyhan disease (Lesch & Nyhan, 1964) is a rare condition caused
by a defective gene on the X chromosome resulting in below-average cog-
nitive functioning, spastic cerebral palsy, choreoathetosis (rapid jerky in-
voluntary muscle movements accompanied by slow sinuous writhing
movements, usually in the hands), and self-mutilation. The condition is
usually inherited but may occur through spontaneous genetic mutation
(Davidson et al., 1991). The disorder has generally been thought to affect
males only; however, a recent study (Yukawa et al., 1992) has documented
the syndrome in a female, and the cause is believed to be spontaneous
mutation. The approximate incidence of the disorder is 1 in 380,000 and
is distributed evenly among races and geographic locales (Matthews, So-
lan, & Barabas, 1995). The disease is expressed in the almost complete
absence of activity of the enzyme hypoanthine guanine phosphoribosyl
transferase (HGPRT), which is responsible for purine metabolism (Page
& Nyhan, 1990). The metabolic consequence is an enormous overproduc-
tion of uric acid in body fluids. Interestingly, correction of the metabolic
defect does not affect the physical and psychological characteristics of
these children (Clements, 1988).
Children with Lesch-Nyhan disease appear normal at birth and may
achieve gross motor milestones appropriately for the first 6 to 8 months.
A very early finding may be the appearance of orange crystalline material
in the diapers as a result of high uric acid concentrations. All individuals
with Lesch-Nyhan disease have cerebral palsy, and the first sign of the
onset of the disease is the development of involuntary muscle movements
between 8 and 12 months and the resultant loss of achieved motor mile-
stones. The disturbance i n motor development is so severe that individuals
with Lesch-Nyhan are unable to stand without assistance, and none learn
to walk (Breese, Mueller, & Schroeder, 1987). The magnitude of these in-
voluntary motor behaviors is increased with tension or excitement. Ulti-
mately, development of excessive muscle tone occurs. One particular char-
acteristic of this disorder is sudden spasms during which the head is
thrown back suddenly and forcehlly. For this reason it is recommended
that others refrain from standing directly behind these individuals. In
addition, these children should not be placed on hard surfaces because
LESCH-NYHAN DISEASE 387
this may lead to head injuries. Communication is characterized by poor
articulation, although individuals with Lesch-Nyhan appear to compre-
hend quite well (Matthews et al., 1995). Mental retardation has been cited
as a fundamental component of the disease (Page & Nyhan, 1990), but
recent evidence suggests that the I& of children with this condition may
reach the low-average range (Matthews et al., 1995). These individuals
also tend to be difficult to feed, and they vomit frequently. Consequently,
most are markedly underweight and short in stature.
Aggressive, self-mutilating behavior is the most distinctive feature of
this disorder (Hatanaka et al., 1990). With the eruption of teeth, patients
begin biting themselves, and biting and other self-injurious behaviors such
as head banging continue throughout the life span. Most individuals with
Lesch-Nyhan disease bite both their lips and fingers destructively. Finger
biting may result in partial self-induced amputations of the fingers, and
lip biting results in marked tissue loss around the lips. In addition, these
individuals cut themselves on available sharp objects (e.g., metal edges of
their wheelchair), burn themselves with hot water, bang their heads, or
bite and pick at their injuries. However, individuals with Lesch-Nyhan
are not insensitive to pain. They scream in pain when they injure them-
selves and may become agitated or fearful at the anticipation of self-injury.
Biting is frequently controlled only when the primary teeth are extracted
early in development.
Aggression can also be directed toward other people, although their
ability to hurt others is limited by their motor deficits. They may attempt
to bite, kick, or hit others when not restrained. In addition, they often spit
or vomit at others in a semivoluntary, aggressive manner (Page & Nyhan,
1990).With puberty, sexually oriented grabbing, pinching, or touching may
develop; verbalizing obscenities is common. As with their self-injurious be-
haviors, these aggressive actions appear compulsive, and they frequently
apologize after successfully completing an aggressive act toward others.
Most individuals with Lesch-Nyhan require some form of physical
restraint both day and night. They appear happy, content, and good na-
tured and laugh easily when securely restrained (Page & Nyhan, 1990).
When the restraints are removed, however, their behavior changes dra-
matically. They appear terrified, scream, and call for help. Older children
sometimes attempt to put themselves back in restraints.
Individuals with Lesch-Nyhan disease have hyperuricemia (high uric acid
concentrations) and, as such, are subject to all of the clinical features
found in people with gout. Acute attacks of arthritis develop after a num-
ber of years of untreated hyperuricemia. Infantile colic and recurrent ab-
dominal pain may indicate insoluble material in the urine. Renal failure
is the most common cause of early death. Tophi, a sodium deposit around
joints or appearing as bumps in tissue of the external ear, also develop.
Treatment appears to have little effect on cerebral palsy, choreoathetosis,
388 LITTLE AND RODEMAKER
or other central nervous system manifestations of this disease. However,
those aspects directly related to uric acid itself can be effectively treated
using the same medication used to treat gout in adults.
In early descriptions, severe mental retardation was thought to be one
of the “cardinal features” of the disease (Nyhan, 1972, p. 186).The physical
disabilities, self-injurious behaviors, and the need for restraints all make
standardized cognitive assessment of these individuals difficult. It has
been observed, however, that these individuals appear more intelligent
than test scores indicate. Anderson, Ernst, and Davis (1992) attempted to
avoid the difficulties associated with traditional assessment methods by
having parents or caregivers describe the cognitive abilities of their chil-
dren. Their results led them t o conclude that most individuals with
Lesch-Nyhan disease are not mentally retarded.
Matthews et al. (1995) attempted to clarify the issue by evaluating
seven hospitalized individuals with Lesch-Nyhan disease using formal cog-
nitive assessment instruments. Participants were administered subtests
from each of the four areas measured by the Stanford-Binet Intelligence
Scale: Fourth Edition (Thorndike, Hagen, & Sattler, 1986),with minor mod-
ifications to account for the participant’s limited motor functioning. Results
indicated a range of functioning from moderate mental retardation to low
average intelligence. Overall, group mean performance on verbal and visual
subtests did not differ, although the authors noted that some individuals
showed a strong preference for one modality over another. The greatest
impairments were found in the areas of attention and higher intellectual
functioning. Specifically, it was noted that they (a) were limited in the
amount of information they could attend to or organize, (b) had difficulty
sustaining short-term memory traces long enough to perform mental manip-
ulations, and (c) exhibited conceptual limitations. The results led the authors
to conclude that although cognitive impairment could be considered to be
characteristic of Lesch-Nyhan disease, mental retardation “isnot an invar-
iable component of Lesch-Nyhan syndrome” (Matthews et a . 1995, p. 721).
Many children with developmental disorders have symptoms in com-
mon with Lesch-Nyhan disease. For example, children with autism or
nonspecific mental retardation may engage in self-injurious behavior. The
pattern of self-mutilation is much different from that of Lesch-Nyhan
disease, however. Head banging is the most common form of self-injurious
behavior found in non-Lesch-Nyhan children, whereas biting and picking
are much less common. The damage inflicted is much less severe and usu-
ally consists of enlargement of the damaged area (e.g., cauliflower ear)
rather than the tissue loss characteristic of Lesch-Nyhan disease. In ad-
dition, the self-injurious behavior of non-Lesch-Nyhan children is much
more amenable to treatment using operant techniques than it is for indi-
viduals with the disease.
No treatment has been shown to have any effect on the central nervous
system manifestations of the disease. Although the goutlike symptoms are
LESCH-I" DISEASE 389
easily controlled chemically, the physical handicaps associated with the
disease follow a predictable course, beginning with a lack of muscle tone
and followed by muscle rigidity and uncontrolled movements of the arms
and body. Physical growth is retarded, and these individuals are unable
to walk or sit without support. Feeding is a problem; many children with
this disease have inefficient mouths as a result of self-mutilation or re-
moval of the teeth. The most remarkable feature of this disorder is the
extreme, chronic self-mutilation that begins early in development. For
these reasons, children with Lesch-Nyhan disease are unlikely to be
placed in a regular school environment. Placement is much more likely to
be in a chronic care facility or in the home with supportive services pro-
vided to the parents.
Although little can be done to alter the course of the disease, environ-
mental modifications can be made t o increase the likelihood that these
individuals can participate in their environment. It is preferable to have
them sitting up in a chair most of the day. They enjoy television, radio,
and recordings. They also enjoy interacting with others, provided they are
in restraints. The placement of securely tied restraints in the chair is
important. Once it is determined which restraints work with the individ-
ual patient, he or she may be able to play with toys or move around in a
wheelchair. Cloth diapers have been found to function well as restraints.
They are ideally tied rather than pinned, because pins can easily come
apart. The thighs and forearms should be secured to the chair with the
hands left free. Hands must be wrapped in a soft material in such a way
as to allow the individual freedom of use without the risk of biting. Ties
should be placed around the chest. All hard surfaces must be padded. At
night, most individuals with Lesch-Nyhan disease require tying all four
extremities to the bed using cloth diapers. When the child is not physically
restrained, more than one adult should be present to provide manual re-
straint. Bathing requires at least two people, and all protruding objects
around the tub or sink should be padded.
Self-mutilative behaviors in individuals with mental retardation are
usually considered a learned response and subject to behavior modification
using operant techniques. Attempts at behavior modification in children
with Lesch-Nyhan disease have led to equivocal results, however. Some
evidence suggests that positive social reinforcement and time-out (i.e.,
withdrawal of attention) can be effective in reducing self-injurious behav-
iors (Clements, 1988). It is clear, however, that aversive techniques have
been totally ineffective and may lead to a worsening of the behaviors tar-
geted for reduction. When working with a child with Lesch-Nyhan dis-
ease, it is best to analyze functionally the self-injurious behavior. It is
possible that it may be maintained through the responses of others in the
environment. It is important to remember that children with Lesch-
Nyhan disease enjoy social interactions, and the attention necessitated by
responding to injuries may be reinforcing to the child. The results of be-
havior modification trials are mildly encouraging, but complete remission
of the self-injurious behaviors should not be expected.
School professionals may provide services to children with Lesch-
Nyhan disease either in a residential setting or through homebound ser-
vices. In terms of the Individuals With Disability Education Act, they are
likely t o be classified as Other Health Impaired. Because this is a very
rare disorder, little research has been conducted on the psychosocial ad-
justment of family members, although one would suspect similar re-
sponses to those found in families of children with other chronic diseases.
This research indicates that these families are at risk for adjustment prob-
lems, particularly maternal distress and marital discord (Varni & Wallan-
der, 1988).Providing emotional support for families, coordinating and fa-
cilitating support services, and making necessary referrals are all ways
the mental health professional can assist in family adjustment.
Anderson, L., Ernst, M., & Davis, S. V. (1992). Cognitive abilities of patients with
Lesch-Nyhan syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 22,
Mathews, W. S., Solan, A., & Barabas, G. (1995). Cognitive functioning in Lesch-
Nyhan syndrome. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 37, 715-722.
These two articles provide an excellent review of cognitive outcomes and subse-
quent psychoeducational implications.
Association for Neuro-Metabolic Disorders, 5223 Brooklield Lane, Sylvania, OH
43560-1809; 4 19-885-1497
This is a national not-for-profitvoluntary organization that is composed of families
with children who have metabolic disorders that affect the central nervous system.
The association produces educational materials, including a brochure and a reg-
International Lesch-Nyhan Disease Association, 11402 Ferndale Street, Phila-
delphia, PA 19116; 215-677-4206
This is a not-for-profit, self-help organization dedicated to providing information
and support to families of children diagnosed with Lesch-Nyhan disease.
National Organization for Rare Disorders, Post Office Box 8923, New Fairfield,
CT 06812-1783; 800-999-6673
Purine Research Society, 5424 Beech Avenue, Bethesda, MD 20814-1730;
301-530-0354; 301-564-9597 (fax); Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This is a national nonprofit charitable organization dedicated to funding research
and treatments for purine-related metabolic diseases. They provide appropriate
referrals to affected individuals and offer educational pamphlets and brochures.
LESCH-NYHAN DISEASE 391
Anderson, L., Emst, M., & Davis, S. V (1992).Cognitive abilities of patients with Lesch-
Nyhan Syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 22, 189-203.
Breese, G. R., Mueller, R. A., & Schroeder, S. R. (1987).The neurochemical basis of symp-
toms in the Lesch-Nyhan syndrome: Relationship to central symptoms in other devel-
opmental disorders. In E. Schopler & G. B. Mesibov (Eds.), Neurobiological issues in
autism (pp. 145- 160).New York Plenum Press.
Clements, J. (1988). Early childhood. In J. L. Matson &A. Marchetti (Eds.), Developmental
disabilities: A lifespan perspective ( pp. 127- 1 5 . Philadelphia: Grune & Stratton.
Davidson, B. L., Tarle, S. A., Van Antwerp, M., Gobbs, D. A, Watts, R. W., Kelley, W. N., &
Palella, T. D. (1991).Identification of 17 independent mutations responsible for human
hypoxanthineguanine phosphoribosyl-transferase (HGPRT) deficiency. American Jour-
nal of Human Genetics, 48,951-958.
Hatanaka, T., Higashino, T., Woo, M., Yasuhara, A,, Sugimoto, T., & Kobayahi, Y. (1990).
Lesch-Nyhan syndrome with delayed onset of self-mutilation: Hyperactivity of inter-
neurons at the brainstem and blink reflex. Acta Neurologica Scandinavia, 81,184-187.
Lesch, M., & Nyhan, W. I. (1964).A familial disorder of uric acid metabolism and central
nervous system function. American Journal of Medicine, 36, 561-570.
Matthews, W. S.,Solan, A., & Barabas, G. (1995).Cognitive functioning in Lesch-Nyhan
syndrome. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 37, 715-722.
Nyhan, W. L. (1972). Clinical features of the Lesch-Nyhan syndrome. Archives of Internal
Medicine, 130, 186-192.
Page, T., & Nyhan, W. L. (1990).Biochemical correlates of auto-aggressive behavior: Infer-
ences from Lesch-Nyhan syndrome. In s. I. Deutch, A. Weizman, & R. Weizman (Eds.),
Application of basic neuroscience to child psychiatry (pp. 297-311). New York Plenum
Medical Book Company.
Thorndike, R. L., Hagen, E. P., & Sattler, J. M. (1986). Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale:
Fourth Edition. Chicago: Riverside.
Varni,J. W., & Wallander, J. L. (1988). Pediatric chronic disabilities: Hemophilia and spina
bifida as examples. In D. K. Routh (Ed.), Handbook of pediatric psychology (pp. 190-
221). New York Guilford Press.
Yukawa, T., Akazawa, H., Miyake, Y., Takahashi, Y., Nagao, H., & Takeda, E. (1992).A
female patient with Lesch-Nyhan syndrome. Developmental Medicine and Child Neu-
rology, 34, 543-546.