CADASIL is a rare genetic disorder affecting the small blood vessels in the brain.
The age of onset, severity, specific symptoms and disease progression varies greatly from one person to another, even among members of the same family. CADASIL is an acronym that stands for:
(C)erebral - relating to the brain (A)utosomal (D)ominant - a form of inheritance in which one copy of an abnormal gene is necessary for the development of a disorder.
(A)rteriopathy - disease of the arteries (blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart)
(S)ubcortical - relating to specific areas of the brain supplied by deep small arteries
(I)nfarcts - tissue loss in the brain caused by lack of oxygen to the brain, which occurs when blood flow in the small arteries is severly reduced or interupted
(L)eukoencephalopathy - refers to lesions in the brain white mattter caused by the disease and well observed on MRI
The symptoms of CADASIL are caused by damage to small blood vessels, especially those within the brain. The specific symptoms and severity of the disorder can vary greatly among affected individuals, even among members of the same family.
Despite this variability, most individuals (approximatively three out of four patients) experience recurrent brain infarcts or transient ischemic attacks (TIAs). They usually occur between 40-50 years of age. They can be detected on MRI without any symptom (silent infarcts) or cause arm and leg weakness, loss of feeling of one part of the body, speech difficulties or lack of coordination in movements. These difficulties may regress in less than 24 hours but they may also become permanent as the disease develops. Repeated brain infacrts can cause progressive symptoms including cognitive disturbances, loss of bladder control (urinary incontinence) and loss of balance. As the disorder progresses, affected individuals may lose the ability to walk unassisted or become bedridden.
Although strokes are the most common symptom associated with CADASIL, some affected individuals never have a stroke.
Cognitive impairment eventually develops in many affected individuals, although the progression of the disease will vary. They do not significant until the age of 50 to 60. They may include difficulties with concentration, deficits in attention span or memory dyfunction, difficulties making decisions or solving problems and general loss of interest (apathy). With age, continued cognitive decline may result in dementia. Dementia is defined as the progressive loss of memory and decline in intellectual abilities that interferes with performing routine tasks of daily life.
Migraine with aura may be the predominant symptom in some affected individuals. Migraines are severe headaches that often cause excruciating pain and can be disabling. In individuals with CADASIL, these headaches are often preceded by abnormal feelings called “aura”. These additional symptoms usually affect vision and may consist of the sudden appearance of a bright light in the centre of the field of vision (scintillating scotoma) or, less frequently, blurred vision in one half of the field of vision (hemianopsia). Other signs can occur: numbness, tingling or weakness on one side of the bosy, or speech difficulties. The signs preceding the migraine, the “aura”, usually last 20 to 30 minutes but sometimes have an extended delay. A few patients suffer from severe attacks with unusual symptoms such as confusion, fever or coma. Although some individuals with CADASIL develop migraines with or without aura, other individuals never develop migraines.
Some individuals with CADASIL develop psychiatric abnormalities ranging from personality and behavioral changes to severe depression.
CADASIL is caused by mutations of the NOTCH3 gene. This mutation is inherited as an autosomal dominant trait. Genetic diseases are determined by the combination of genes for a particular trait that are on the chromosomes received from the father and the mother. Dominant genetic disorders occur when only a single copy of an abnormal gene is necessary for the appearance of the disease. Most individuals with CADASIL have a parent with the disorder but CADASIL can be due to a spontaneous genetic mutation that occurs for unknown reasons (de novo mutation). In these cases, there is no previous family history of the disorder. The risk of passing the abnormal gene from affected parent to offspring is 50 percent for each pregnancy regardless of the gender of the child.
NOTCH3 gene is located on the short arm (p) of chromosome 19 (19p). Chromosomes, which are present in the nucleus of human cells, carry the genetic information for each individual. Human body cells normally have 46 chromosomes. Pairs of human chromosomes are numbered from 1 through 22 and the sex chromosomes are designated X and Y.
NOTCH3 gene contains instructions to create (encode) a protein that is predominantly expressed in smooth muscle cells on the walls of small arteries. Mutations to the NOTCH3 gene result in abnormal accumulation of this protein at the surface of smooth muscle cells. Ultimately, NOTCH3 mutations lead to progressive damage to the small blood vessels in the brain, premature destruction of smooth muscle cells, reduced blood flow to the brain and tissue loss within the white matter and the deeper parts of the brain, by means of a mechanism not entirely understood.
CADASIL affects males and females in equal numbers. The disorder is found worldwide. The incidence of the disorder is unknown. Researchers believe that the disorder often goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed making it difficult to determine the true frequency of CADASIL in the general population.
A diagnosis of CADASIL is most often suspected upon identification of symptoms and MRI lesions compatible with the disease. An MRI uses a magnetic field and radio waves to produce cross-sectional images of particular organs and bodily tissues including the brain. An MRI can identify characteristic changes in the brains of individuals with CADASIL. However, such changes are not unique to CADASIL and can occur with other disorders.
The CADASIL diagnosis is confirmed by taking blood sample and looking for characteristic mutations in the Notch 3 gene.
At the present, there is no treatment that can cure the disease or prevent its onset. However, it is possible to treat symptoms as they occur, to improve the patient’s quality of life. For example, migraines can be treated with traditional analgesics such as paracetamol, ibuprofen, aspirin and NSAIDs. Other medicines commonly used to treat migraine such as vasoconstrictors (especially triptans) are not recommended for patients with CADASIL. Aspirin may be used as preventive treatment after the first stroke has occurred. Drug therapy for depression or other psychiatric abnormalities are sometimes needed. Psychological support is often essential and genetic counseling may be of benefit for affected individuals and their families.
The drug donepezil has been evaluated for individuals with CADASIL who have cognitive impairment. In this trial, researchers were not able to establish an efficacy of this potential therapy. Information on current clinical trials is posted on the Internet at www.clinicaltrials.gov. All studies receiving U.S. Government funding, and some supported by private industry, are posted on this government web site.
For information about clinical trials being conducted at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD, contact the NIH Patient Recruitment Office:
Tollfree: (800) 411-1222
TTY: (866) 411-1010
For information about clinical trials sponsored by private sources, contact:
For information about clinical trials conducted in Europe, contact:
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