Diagnosis by newborn screening and the implementation of a phenylalanine-restricted diet have resulted in normal neurological development in approximately 10 000 persons with phenylketonuria (PKU) in the United States. While it is accepted that a phenylalanine-restricted diet is necessary in childhood, the recommended concentration of phenylalanine in the blood varies. Clinicians now must make recommendations for adults with PKU who probably tolerate higher levels of phenylalanine than children. This factor, quality of life issues, the expense of the diet, and varying genetic and socio-economic backgrounds, make the choice of dietary recommendations difficult.
Molecular analysis of the mutations in PKU has provided insight but has not resulted in clear recommendations for phenylalanine concentration in the blood. Magnetic resonance imaging has provided the recognition that white-matter changes are present in PKU. However, owing to poor correlation of white-matter changes with clinical factors, analysis of white-matter changes has not proved useful. We hypothesize that measurement of brain phenylalanine directly will aid in clinical decision making.
Twenty-one subjects with PKU had blood and brain phenylalanine measured simultaneously. Fifteen were randomly selected, 2 were examined for clinical reasons and 4 exceptional patients were chosen because they had maintained high IQs, despite having high historic blood concentrations and having been off the diet for at least 10 years. The correlation of blood and brain phenylalanine is in general poor. However, the four exceptional patients all had relatively low concentrations of phenylalanine in their brains compared to their blood. We suggest that their good clinical status, despite high historic blood levels, is due to their comparatively low brain levels of phenylalanine. We further suggest that measurement of brain phenylalanine concentration is useful in the management of PKU patients.