Progressive supranuclear palsy
Progressive supranuclear palsy, also called Steele-Richardson-Olszewski syndrome, is an uncommon brain disorder that causes serious problems with walking, balance and eye movements. The disorder results from deterioration of cells in areas of your brain that control body movement and thinking.
Progressive supranuclear palsy worsens over time and can lead to life-threatening complications, such as pneumonia and swallowing problems. There’s no cure for progressive supranuclear palsy, so treatment focuses on managing the signs and symptoms.
The cause of progressive supranuclear palsy isn’t known. The signs and symptoms of the disorder result from deterioration of cells in areas of your brain, especially those that help you control body movements (midbrain) and thinking (frontal lobe).
Researchers have found that the deteriorating brain cells of people with progressive supranuclear palsy have abnormal amounts of a protein called tau. Clumps of tau are characteristic of other neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Rarely, progressive supranuclear palsy occurs within a family. But a genetic link isn’t clear, and most people with progressive supranuclear palsy haven’t inherited the disorder.
The characteristic signs and symptoms of progressive supranuclear palsy include:
- A loss of balance while walking. A tendency to fall backward can occur very early in the disease.
- An inability to aim your eyes properly. You may have particular difficulty looking downward, or experience blurring and doubled vision. This difficulty with focusing the eyes can make some people spill food or appear disinterested in conversation because of poor eye contact.
Additional signs and symptoms of progressive supranuclear palsy vary and may mimic those of Parkinson’s disease and dementia. These signs and symptoms worsen as the disease advances, and may include:
- Stiffness and awkward movements
- Problems with speech and swallowing
- Sensitivity to light
- Sleep disturbances
- Loss of interest in pleasurable activities
- Impulsive behavior, possibly including laughing or crying for no reason
- Difficulties with memory, reasoning, problem-solving and decision-making
- Depression and anxiety
- A surprised or frightened facial expression, resulting from rigid facial muscles
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if you experience signs and symptoms of progressive supranuclear palsy.