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Menkes Disease (Syndrome)
Wednesday, 02 July 2003
Monday, 09 August 2004
Kinky hair disease, Steely hair disease, Trichopoliodystrophy, X-linked copper deficiency
Additional entries in our database that you might find useful:   Occipital Horn Syndrome (OHS)


ATP7A-related copper transport disorders are a pair of genetic diseases, Menkes disease and occipital horn syndrome (OHS or X-linked cutis laxa), that are both caused by a mutation in a copper-transporting ATPase gene (named ATP7A). Copper is an important mineral needed for growth and development. In Menkes disease, copper is not properly transported to certain areas of the body thus causing a lack of proper development of these areas, such as the brain, liver and bones.


Menkes is generally inherited as a X-linked recessive genes; however, it is thought that about one-third of the infants affected do not have a family history of disease. The estimated incidence of Menkes disease is 1:100,000 to 1:250,000 live births. X-linked recessive describes an inherited disorder in which the defective gene is on the X chromosome. Every female has two X chromosomes and every male has one X and one Y chromosome. If this X-linked recessive gene is passed on to a male child, he will have this disorder since he only has one X-chromosome. A female child will only be a carrier of this mutated gene since she has another X-chromosome that is not affected. A female will only show symptoms of a X-linked recessive disease if BOTH of her X chromosomes are defective. As a carrier, she will not show symptoms of the disease but she will be able to pass this gene on to her children. A mother who is a carrier of the gene has a 50% chance of transmitting the mutation to her children. People with Menkes disease are unable to have children. It is important for families to obtain genetic counseling if they carry this trait. Prenatal testing is a possibility if the mother is known to be a carrier.

Signs and Symptoms

Menkes disease represents a more severe form of the ATP 7A-related transport disorders. Menkes disease presents in male infants, 2-3 months of age, who are noted to have regression of developmental milestones, failure to thrive, seizures, hypotonia (low muscle tone), and mental retardation. In addition to the neurological deterioration, other important characteristics include:

  • Changes in hair, e.g. becoming short, sparse, coarse, twisted or “kinky,” hypopigmented (loss of color)
  • Sagging facial features
  • Increased skin laxity (looseness)
  • Failure to thrive
  • Umbilical or inguinal hernias
  • Sunken breast bone (pectus excavatum)
  • Temperature instability and hypoglycemia, especially in the newborn period
  • Bladder outlet obstruction  Gastric polyps (growths)
  • Tortuous, or twisting, blood vessels, causing strokes or bleeding Rarely, children with Menkes disease may have a milder form in which the neurological symptoms and mental retardation are less severe and the disease occurs later in childhood.

Possible Causes

Menkes disease is caused by a mutation in a gene (ATP7A) that is responsible for transporting copper in and out of cells. Mutations in this gene result in a build-up of copper in some areas of the body and low amounts of copper in other areas of the body. Some areas of the body where the copper builds up include the duodenum (part of the small intestines), kidney, spleen, pancreas, and skeletal muscle, whereas copper is unable to be transported effectively into the brain, liver, arteries and bones. Reduced activity of copper-dependent enzymes (proteins that help with chemical reactions) are also noted with these disorders.


Diagnosis is based on the clinical history and blood tests showing low amounts of copper and low amounts of ceruloplasmin (a copper containing protein). A series of complex tests on the blood (molecular genetic testing) can determine the presence of the ATP7A mutation in more than 95% of children with the disorder. Examination of the hair under the microscope shows pili torti (hair twisting 1800) and splitting of the hair. X-rays show osteoporosis (thinning and weakening of the bones), changes in the bones of the spinal column (vertebral bodies), and excess wormian bones (small bones along the sutures, or connections, between the skull bones). MRI (imaging) of the brain demonstrates a decrease in the size of the brain and twisting appearance of the blood vessels. An EEG (electroencephalogram) records the electrical activity in the brain. This may be abnormal in children with these disorders.


Children with Menkes disease require significant supportive care, including physical/occupational therapy. A feeding tube may need to be placed if the children are not growing well. Injections of copper histidine or copper chloride early on may improve the neurological condition slightly and may decrease the frequency of seizures, but has not been shown to increase life span. Also, the bladder obstruction or diverticula may need surgical intervention and antibiotics may be used to prevent infections and damage to the urinary system and kidneys. Current research is focusing on learning more about the disease in order to provide more effective treatments. Specifically, a study is currently looking at the benefits of using copper histidine therapy early on in the disease course.


The prognosis depends on the severity of the disorder. Children with the classic form of Menkes usually do not survive past the age of 3-4 years, secondary to infections or worsening neurological function. However, children with the milder form of Menkes may survive into adulthood.

Connect with other parents

In the spirit of community and support, Madisons Foundation offers the unique service of connecting parents of children with rare diseases. If you would like to be connected to other parents of children with this disease, please fill out this brief form.


Justin Gorden and Menkes Syndrome Network 
A wonderful family website for parents with a child with Menkes disease.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and strokes
Government website of the National Institutes of Health focusing on neurological conditions, in this case, primarily Menkes disease. Support group - Corporation for Menkes Disease 5720 Buckfield Court Fort Wayne, IN 46804 219-436-0137

Google Search for Menkes Disease (Syndrome)

References and Sources

Barbagallo JS et al. (2002). “Neurocutaneous Disorders.” Dermatologic Clinics, 20:3, W.B. Saunders Company. Kaler S.(2003). “ATP7A-Related Copper Transport Disorders.” University of Washington, Seattle. Author unknown (2003) “Menkes’ Disease.” In: Goetz: Textbook of Clinical Neurology, 2nd ed., Elsevier, p 659-660. Website: