Phe and the Brain

Phenylalanine (Phe) and the brain

Significant and long-lasting neurological damage caused by high or unstable Phe continues to be explored in clinical studies.1,2 Recent research is investigating the long-term consequences of elevated blood Phe levels.3,4

Phenylketonuria (PKU) and Phe

PKU is an inherited metabolic disorder that can have a serious neurological impact.5,6 It is caused by mutations in the gene that codes for the phenylalanine hydroxylase (PAH) enzyme.6

These mutations inhibit PAH from converting the essential amino acid Phe into tyrosine (Tyr). This inhibition results in elevations in blood Phe, which contribute to elevations in brain Phe.5-7

If unmanaged, PKU can cause neurological damage and severe intellectual impairment.4,7 However, morphological changes to the brain have also been seen in early treated PKU patients, who can exhibit a wide range of symptoms.8-11

High or unstable blood Phe levels can have long-term negative effects.3,4,12 As the generation of patients with PKU diagnosed after the institution of newborn screening ages, the long-term effects of poor Phe control will become more apparent.3,4,6,12,13

High or unstable Phe can be neurotoxic4,6

Recent studies have characterized the multiple mechanisms by which high Phe changes brain morphology and disrupts function.3,4,6,12


  • Disruption of neurotransmitter synthesis14
  • Inhibition of cerebral protein synthesis5
  • Oxidative stress15
  • Inhibition of enzymes that contribute to brain energy metabolism16
  • Emergence of amyloid bodies17


  • Gliosis (an excess of glial cells in damaged areas of the brain)4,18
  • Hypomyelination, demyelination, and white matter damage4,19
  • Delay or arrest in the development of the cerebral cortex4
  • Gray matter damage12

High or unstable Phe levels have also been shown to disrupt synthesis of serotonin and dopamine, and may contribute to higher rates of depression in patients with PKU. This is one of many relationships between high or unstable Phe levels and clinical manifestations of PKU that is becoming better understood.14,20

You can change the future of PKU

Complete the form below so you can stay up to date on the latest in PKU research, receive access to clinical publications on PKU management, and for opportunities to connect with peers. Increasing our knowledge of the neurological effects of PKU—and their connection to clinical manifestations—may guide new approaches in management.13

We look forward to being a reliable source of information about the effects of high or unstable Phe in PKU, pathophysiology of PKU, and support tools.


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  2. Hood A, Grange DK, Christ SE, Steiner R, White DA. Variability in phenylalanine control predicts IQ and executive abilities in children with phenylketonuria. Mol Genet Metab. 2014;111(4):445-451. doi:10.1016/j.ymgme.2014.01.012.
  3. Waisbren SE, Noel K, Fahrbach K, et al. Phenylalanine blood levels and clinical outcomes in phenylketonuria: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis. Mol Genet Metab. 2007;92(1-2):63-70. doi:10.1016/j.ymgme.2007.05.006.
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