We have examined 138 cases of a disorder previously described in people of Portuguese origin and which has received many names. By computer analysis of 46 different items of a standardized neurological examination carried out in each patient, we have been able to delineate the main components of the clinical presentation, to conclude that the marked variability in clinical expressions does not negate the homogeneity of the disorder, and to describe the natural history of this entity which should be called, for historical reasons, “Machado-Joseph Disease”.
This hereditary disease has an autosomal dominant pattern of inheritance, presenting as a progressive ataxia with external ophthalmoplegia, and should be classified within the group of “Ataxic multisystem degenerations”. When the disease starts before the age of 20, it may present with marked spasticity, of a non progressive nature but often so severe that it can be accompanied by “Gegenhalten” countermovements and dystonic postures but little frank dystonia. There are few true extrapyramidal symptoms except akinesia. When the disease starts after the age of 50, the clinical spectrum is mostly that of an amyotrophic polyneuropathy with fasciculations accompanying the ataxia. For all the other cases the clinical picture is a c.ontinuum between these two extremes, the main determinant of the clinical phenotype being the age of onset and a secondary factor, the place of origin of the given kindred. The ataxic and amyotrophic components are clearly progressive with time in contrast to the spasticity component. Although the majority of known cases are of Portuguese origin, this is not obligatory. The next research endeavour should be a search for the chromosomal site of the gene, using molecular biology technology such as those for recombinant DNA.