Canavan Disease

Clinical Characteristics
Ocular Features: 

Optic atrophy is the primary and perhaps only ocular manifestation of Canavan disease.  Acuity levels have not been reported but it has been noted that some infants and young children with early onset severe disease are able to track targets.  The ocular phenotype has not been well delineated.

Systemic Features: 

The clinical diagnosis of Canavan disease is suggested when the triad of hypotonia, macrocephaly and head lag is present.  It is a progressive form of spongy degeneration of the central nervous system but its onset, course, and severity are variable.

The disease is often evident before 6 months of age and survival is limited to a few months or years in infants with such early onset.  Such patients have the most severe and rapidly progressive disease.  It is noteworthy that, even though such infants do not achieve normal milestones such as sitting and standing, they do often interact socially by laughing, smiling, and reaching for objects.  Most young children are quiet and apathetic but some become irritable and develop spasticity as they grow.  CNS damage is evident as leukodystrophy on neuroimaging studies but this may not be present in later onset, milder forms of the disease.         

Other individuals may have a later and milder juvenile onset of symptoms and may present with delayed speech or motor development late in the first decade.  They often attend regular school but may benefit from tutoring and speech therapy.  They may live to adolescence or early adulthood.  Maldevelopment of the organ of Corti is responsible for hearing deficits in some children.


Canavan disease is an autosomal recessive disorder resulting from homozygous or compound heterozygous mutations in the gene (ASPA) located at 17p13.2 encoding the enzyme aspartoacylase.  N-acetylaspartic acid (NAA) levels are usually elevated in urine.  However, because the levels of NAA can vary depending on the severity of clinical disease, gene testing provides a more reliable diagnosis. 

The carrier frequency is high among members of the Ashkenazi Jewish population.

Treatment Options: 

Antiepileptic drugs can be helpful.  Augmented feeding (gastric tubes)may be needed to maintain nutrition, while physical therapy and exercise may prevent contractures.  Speech therapy and low vision aids might be of benefit. Rare patients with a hearing deficit should be evaluated for possible benefit of hearing aids.

Article Title: 


Sommer A, Sass JO. Expression of aspartoacylase (ASPA) and Canavan disease. Gene. 2012 Jun 28. [Epub ahead of print]

PubMedID: 22750302

Feigenbaum A, Moore R, Clarke J, Hewson S, Chitayat D, Ray PN, Stockley TL. Canavan disease: carrier-frequency determination in the Ashkenazi Jewish population and development of a novel molecular diagnostic assay. Am J Med Genet A. 2004 Jan 15;124A(2):142-7.

PubMedID: 14699612

Kaul R, Gao GP, Aloya M, Balamurugan K, Petrosky A, Michals K, Matalon R. Canavan disease: mutations among Jewish and non-Jewish patients. Am J Hum Genet. 1994 Jul;55(1):34-41.

PubMedID: 8023850