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Ophthaproblem. Vitamin A and vitamin E.


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Pratique clinique Clinical Pract ice


30-year-old woman had been admitted to hospital in infancy with diarrhea, steatorrhea, and failure to thrive. During late childhood, she developed atypi- cal retinitis pigmentosa involving the retina and a progressive ataxic neuropathy.

Investigations showed her serum lacked beta-lipoprotein and her red corpuscles had a spiky shape. Recent ophthalmic examination revealed substantial choroidal atrophy around the disk and a speckled peripheral fundus.

Which vitamins should this patient be given as therapy for her disorder?

1. Vitamin A 2. Vitamin E 3. Vitamin C 4. Vitamin B

Answer on page 1085

Mr Segal is a medical student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. Dr Sharma is an Associate Professor of Ophthalmology and an Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at Queen’s University

Shaun Segal Sanjay Sharma, MD, MSC, MBA, FRCSC


Photo credit: Ophthalmic Photography Laboratory of Queen’s University, Hotel Dieu Hospital, Kingston, Ont.

VOL 5: AUGUST • AOÛT 2005d Canadian Family Physician • Le Médecin de famille canadien 1079


1. Vitamin A and 2. vitamin E

Th is patient has abetalipoproteinemia (ABL), some- times called Bassen-Kornzweig syndrome,1 a dis- ease characterized by malabsorption of fat. The condition is treated with supplements of the two fat-soluble vitamins A and E. Abetalipoproteinemia manifests itself through signs of lipid malabsorp- tion, dense contracted red blood cells with multiple thorny projections, degeneration of the pigment of the retina, and ataxia with hypocholesteremia. Th e characteristic absence of lipoproteins with beta- electrophoretic mobility led to the name “abetali- poproteinemia.”

Abetalipoproteinemia is a rare autosomal reces- sive disorder caused by an abnormality in a micro- somal triglyceride transfer protein normally present in the liver and intestines.2-4 A good portion of chil- dren with the disorder are born of consanguineous marriages.2 Th is inbred error in lipid metabolism adversely affects the cells throughout the body, including the retina. People with ABL are asymp- tomatic when they are born. With an enriched lipid diet, patients display signs of celiac disease, includ- ing diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal swelling.2,5 Chronic malabsorption of lipids leads to a lipid- soluble vitamin defi ciency. Since the plasma trans- port of vitamin E depends solely on lipoproteins containing apolipoprotein B, levels of vitamin E are markedly diminished in the body.2 Vitamins A, D, and K are also diminished, but less so than vitamin E because these vitamins have alternative modes of transportation.2

During the fi rst two decades of life, the vitamin deficiencies result in neuro-ophthalmologia, the dominant manifestation of the disease and a deter- minant of the morbidity associated with ABL.2,4 The first ophthalmologic signs are alterations in

night and colour vision. Reductions in visual acu- ity and visual fi elds typically follow. Fundoscopic examination reveals an atypical pigmentation of the retina characterized by small white spots irreg- ularly distributed. Angioid streaks or small breaks

in the elastin-fi lled tissue of the retina have been reported,2,4,6 as have ophthalmoplegia, ptosis, and anisocoria.2,4

Electroretinogram and fluorescein angiogra- phy investigations show the retina to be aff ected in asymptomatic patients.2,4 Patients with more advanced disease can experience night blindness. A few histologic examinations show a depletion of the photoreceptors and an accumulation of lipofuscin (a brownish pigment left over from the breakdown and absorption of damaged cells) in the retina.2,4

Patients with ABL have deposits of lipofuscin in several tissues (skeletal striated muscle, liver, myo- cardium, spinal cord, and retina), which suggests vitamin E defi ciency.4 Vitamin E normally serves as an antioxidant preventing free radicals from attack- ing the mitochondrial membrane. Without the pro- tection of vitamin E, lipoperoxidation results in the formation of lipofuscin pigment. In animals, a vitamin E defi ciency has been shown to produce the same neuro-ophthalmologic signs as those seen in patients with ABL.2,4 Patients with ABL also have lesions in the nervous system similar to those observed in vitamin E–defi cient experimental ani- mals and in malabsorption syndromes, including tocopherol defi ciency.2

The role of vitamin A in retinal complica- tions of ABL is unclear. Night blindness found in patients with ABL is a classic sign of vitamin A deficiency; other signs of vitamin A deficiency,

Answer to Ophthaproblem

continued from page 1079

VOL 5: AUGUST • AOÛT 2005d Canadian Family Physician • Le Médecin de famille canadien 1085

Pratique clinique Clinical Pract ice



such as xerophthalmia and keratomalacia, are rarely found in patients with ABL.2 Vitamin A supplementation alone can sometimes improve night blindness and reduce abnormalities seen on the electroretinogram.2

Patients with ABL have been treated with com- bined vitamin A and E since the 1960s to prevent or delay retinal degeneration.4 Th is therapy is based on clinical and laboratory data that show that lev- els of vitamin A and E are low in patients with ABL and on the important role vitamin A has in photo- transduction.2,4 Severe impairment of retinal func- tion was found in rats defi cient in both vitamin A and E for prolonged periods.4 It seemed reasonable that supplementation with these vitamins might benefi t patients with ABL.

While vitamin supplementation has been the mainstay of treatment for the past four decades, only a few studies have investigated the interme- diate and long-term benefi ts of this treatment.4,5,7 Studies show that, in the long run, oral vitamin A and E (at recommended levels) given to children before they are 2 years old can markedly hinder the severe retinal degeneration that results from ABL.4 Fundoscopic and functional retinal changes, how- ever, were seen in a substantial number of patients despite early initiation of treatment.4 Th is might be due to a deficiency of essential fatty acids or other nutrients necessary for preserving normal retinal function in some patients, among other fac- tors. Th e treatment protocol for ABL needs to be further refi ned.


As a baby, this patient was given a diet of long-chain trigylcerides replaced by medium-chain triglycer- ides and oral fat-soluble vitamin supplements (D, A, E, and K). Vitamin E was later given by intramuscu- lar injection to help slow her developmental neu- rologic abnormalities (this maneuver has proven successful over the years). As she approached the age of 10, she developed retinitis pigmentosa and

diffi culties adapting her eyes to darkness, despite the vitamin therapy.

Just before she was 20, she developed progressive night blindness, fundus fi ndings resembling bilat- eral retinitis pigmentosa, and an angioidlike branch- ing chorioretinal atrophy in the peripapillary region of both eyes that threatened the foveal region in the right eye. Her visual acuity is 6/12 in her right eye and 6/60 in her left. She receives vitamin therapy to this day. Her son has a micro-ophthalmia condition likely related to the large doses of vitamin A she took during pregnancy. Otherwise, the son is free of the disease.


Patients who start vitamin therapy at an older age have markedly worse prognoses.4 Therefore, as soon as patients present with signs of ABL they should be referred to a neurologist and an ophthal- mologist for assessment and management. Because a lipid-rich diet exacerbates the syndrome, par- ents should be encouraged to give their children a lipid-poor diet. Because ABL is a lifelong disease, patients need to be educated, monitored, and sup- ported with regard to the disease. Genetic counsel- ing might be benefi cial for parents and for patients with ABL wanting to have children of their own.


1. Bassen FA, Kornzweig AL. Malformation of the erythrocytes in a case of atypical retinitis pigmentosa. Blood 1950;5:381-7.

2. Berriot-Varoqueaux N, Aggerbeck LP, Samson-Bouma ME, Wetterau JR. Th e role of the microsomal triglyceride transfer protein in abetalipoproteinemia. Ann Rev Nutr 2000;20:663–97.

3. Gouras P, Carr RE, Gunkel RD. Retinitis pigmentosa in abetalipoproteinemia. Invest Ophthalmol 1971;10:784-93.

4. Chowers I, Banin E, Merin S, Cooper M, Granot E. Long-term assessment of combined vitamin A and E treatment for the prevention of retinal degeneration in abetalipoproteinae- mia and hypobetalipoproteinaemia patients. Eye 2001;15(Pt 4):525-30.

5. Sperling MA, Hiles DA, Kennerdell JS. Electroretinographic responses following vitamin A therapy in A-beta-lipoproteinemia. Am J Ophthalmol 1972;73:343-51.

6. Runge P, Muller DPR, McAllister J, Calver D, Lloyd JK, Taylor D. Oral vitamin E supplements can prevent the retinopathy of abetalipoproteinemia. Br J Ophthalmol 1986;70:166-73.

7. Bishara S, Merin S, Cooper M, Azizi E, Delpre G, Deckelbaum RJ. Combined vitamin A and E therapy prevents retinal electrophysiological deterioration in abetalipoproteinemia.

Br J Ophthalmol 1982;66:767-70.

Answer to Ophthaproblem

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Pratique clinique Clinical Pract ice

1086 Canadian Family Physician • Le Médecin de famille canadien dVOL 5: AUGUST • AOÛT 2005


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