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Friedreich's Ataxia: Disease mechanisms, antioxidant and Coenzyme Q_{10} therapy

Mitochondria clearly play a central role in the pathogenesis of Friedreich's Ataxia. The most common genetic abnormality results in the deficiency of the protein frataxin, which is targeted to the mitochondrion. Research since this discovery has indicated that mitochondrial respiratory chain dysfunction, mitochondrial iron accumulation and oxidative damage are important components of the disease mechanism. While the role of frataxin is not known, evidence is currently pointing to a role in either mitochondrial iron handling or iron sulphur centre synthesis. These advances in our understanding of the disease mechanisms are enabling therapeutic avenues to be explored, in particular the use of established drugs such as antioxidants and enhancers of respiratory chain function. Vitamin E therapy has been shown to be beneficial in patients with ataxia with vitamin E deficiency, and CoQ_{10} therapy was effective in some patients with ataxia associated with CoQ_{10} deficiency.

A combined therapy involving long term treatment with high doses of vitamin E and coenzyme Q_{10} has jointly targeted two of the major features of Friedreich's Ataxia; decreased mitochondrial respiratory chain function and increased oxidative stress. This therapy clearly showed a rapid and sustained increase in the energy generated by the FRDA heart muscle, nearly returning to normal levels. The improvements in skeletal muscle energy generation parallel those of the heart but to a lower level. While this therapy appeared to slow the predicted progression of some clinical symptoms a larger placebo controlled study is required to confirm these observations. Other antioxidant strategies have involved the use of Idebenone, selenium and N acetyl cysteine but only the use of Idebenone has involved structured trials with relatively large patient numbers. Idebenone clearly had an impact upon the cardiac hypertrophy in the majority of patients, although there have not been any other significant benefits reported to date.