Autonomic neuropathies and gastroparesis



Autonomic autoimmune ganglionopathy


Autonomic nervous system


Transthyretin amyloid


composite autonomic symptom score


Ehlers-Danlos syndrome


Human Immunodeficiency Virus


Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome




The autonomic nervous system (ANS) consist of the sympathetic, the parasympathetic and the enteric nervous systems. The enteric nervous system consists of its own functional units with the interstitial cells of Cajal, Meissner and Auerbach plexuses, their synaptic connections, reflex circuits and the smooth muscles. However, it is under extrinsic modulatory control of the sympathetic and parasympathetic autonomic system. Functions of the esophagus and the stomach are more dependent on signals from the extrinsic compared to those of the intestine. The sympathetic pathways have inhibitory effects on the gastrointestinal muscles and contribute to tonic suppression of mucosal secretion. The parasympathetic pathways send both excitatory and inhibitory signals for gastric motility . A finely tuned coordination and interaction between all three systems are important for normal gastrointestinal motility and homeostasis. Impairment in any of these components could lead to gastrointestinal dysmotility, including gastroparesis.

A long list of disorders affecting the central or peripheral nervous system potentially leads to such impairment. Diabetic autonomic neuropathy is one of the most common etiologies for gastroparesis. Other peripheral neuropathies with predominant autonomic features can cause impaired gastric motility as well. Neurodegenerative diseases, collectively called as autonomic alpha-synucleinopathies including Parkinson disease, multiple system atrophy, and pure autonomic failure can cause gastrointestinal symptoms. Gastroparesis may follow other central nervous system disease such as stroke, multiple sclerosis, tumor, and cervical spinal injury although they are less common . Gastroparesis has been reported as results of autoimmune process in cases of post-infectious autonomic neuropathies, paraneoplastic syndromes, and in association with underlying autoimmune diseases. There is a growing evidence that idiopathic autonomic gastric dysmotility may actually be secondary to an inflammatory or autoimmune seronegative disorder . Lastly, it should be emphasized that symptoms of gastrointestinal dysmotility and autonomic symptoms in other systems can be caused or aggravated by medications.

Evaluation for autonomic neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathies are neurological conditions resulting from impairment or degeneration in the peripheral nervous system due to various etiologies. Peripheral neuropathies can be classified in different ways depending on underlying causes, distribution of dominantly affected nerve fibers or clinically involved functions. When only small fibers, which are unmyelinated or thinly myelinated, are affected clinically, a diagnosis of small-fiber neuropathy can be made although electrophysiological or pathological tests are needed to provide supporting evidence for the diagnosis in some cases. Typical distal-dominant small-fiber neuropathies cause neuropathic pain with allodynia and hyperalgesia as well as reduced cutaneous pain and temperature sensation in length-dependent patterns making a ‘gloves-and-socks’ distribution. In contrast, larger myelinated fibers are responsible for muscle control and proprioception. Disruption in the larger fiber cause weakness, distal muscle atrophy, impaired proprioception and loss of deep tendon reflexes. Autonomic peripheral fibers are mainly small-fibers with some afferent fibers of large diameters . Autonomic neuropathies are usually defined as a group of peripheral neuropathies where autonomic dysfunctions are the only clinical manifestations or the predominant symptoms that overweight sensorimotor problems . In most peripheral neuropathies, autonomic fibers are affected but autonomic manifestations are often mild or subclinical.

Autonomic neuropathies are occasionally divided according to involved systems, which creates organ-specific terms such as cardiac autonomic neuropathies, genitourinary autonomic neuropathies, gastrointestinal autonomic neuropathies, and sudomotor autonomic neuropathies . For example, diabetic gastroparesis is described as a presentation of gastrointestinal autonomic neuropathy in some literature. Considering that clinically available tests in neurology to make a diagnosis of autonomic neuropathies are mainly focused on cardiovascular and sudomotor (sweating) systems, these organ-specific terms can be confusing and may describe limited forms of autonomic neuropathy.

Given that the enteric nervous system has neurochemistry and microscopic neuroanatomy similar to those of the extrinsic autonomic nervous system, it is plausible that pathophysiological processes can result from autonomic neuropathies at different levels. Reports of autoimmune-related conditions including paraneoplastic autonomic neuropathies and acute autonomic sensory neuropathies have revealed pathological changes in both intrinsic and extrinsic autonomic nervous system such as the vagal nerves, the peripheral nerves, and the ganglia . This dual pathological pattern is also seen in autonomic neuropathies due to diabetes mellitus and systemic amyloidosis . However, autonomic reflex test, a method to diagnose cardiovascular autonomic neuropathy or support a diagnosis of small-fiber neuropathy, does not always have strong correlations with gastroparesis or gastrointestinal autonomic neuropathies. Some studies of diabetic gastroparesis did not show significant association between gastric emptying findings and cardiac autonomic neuropathy . Patients with human immunodeficiency virus reported symptoms indicative of gastroparesis without evidence of cardiac autonomic neuropathy . These reports suggest that severity and distribution of autonomic nerve involvement can be variable depending on individuals and underlying causes in autonomic neuropathies.

Clinical evaluation

There is no established consensus or guidelines on diagnosis criteria of autonomic neuropathies, either general or organ-specific. Patients with autonomic neuropathies present with various but usually non-specific symptoms signifying involvements of multiple organ systems. Commonly affected areas are cardiovascular, sudomotor, gastrointestinal, genitourinary, and pupilomotor systems. Related symptoms and signs are orthostatic intolerance, postural hypotension, impaired heart rate control, loss of circadian hemodynamic rhythm (cardiovascular), changes in sweating, slippery hands/fingers (sudomotor), loss of bladder control, erectile dysfunction, dyspareunia due to loss of vaginal lubrication (genitourinary), sicca symptoms (secretomotor), blurry vision, and photophobia (pupilomotor) . There are no symptoms highly specific to autonomic neuropathies. But in addition to the known underlying disease, postural hypotension, excessive postural tachycardia, and loss of sweating can be clues for the etiology. Side effects of medications and local problems in the involved organs should be always considered before assuming a primary neurological or autonomic disorder.

During a clinical encounter with a patient suffering from gastroparesis, it is the neurologist’s role to look for systemic autonomic involvements and diagnose neurological conditions that can explain patient’s gastrointestinal complaints. Information about autonomic symptoms in multiple organs can be obtained by asking autonomic specified or targeted questions and by using autonomic questionnaires. The most commonly used questionnaire is the composite autonomic symptom score (COMPASS). Its abbreviated version (COMPASS 31) consists of 31 questions in 6 domains: gastrointestinal, orthostatic intolerance, vasomotor, secretomotor, bladder and pupilomotor. It is a self-assessment tool that can gauge autonomic symptoms and their severity . It can also be used to monitor a course of autonomic disorders.

Autonomic reflex tests

Autonomic reflex tests using sensitive and reproducible measurements have been used at more medical centers as a feasible and reliable neurophysiological diagnostic tool in the United States. Autonomic reflex tests have improved diagnosis process for autonomic neuropathies and largely evaluate cardiovascular and sudomotor autonomic reflexes. The two autonomic systems have a few advantages over other systems. Neuronal pathways relevant to the autonomic reflex tests have been relatively well studied in human and animal models. Hemodynamic parameters and sweat measures can be monitored continuously and easily quantified. The tests can be performed as an outpatient basis through non-invasive methods without sedation of patients.

Cardiovascular assessment in the autonomic reflex test consists of evaluation for cardiovagal function, sympathetic adrenergic function, and hemodynamic response to orthostatic stress. Cardiovagal function can be evaluated by analyzing heart rate changes to various stimuli. For a beat-to-beat heart rate monitoring, intervals between two neighboring R waves of QRS complexes on a continuous electrocardiogram are recorded with each heartbeat. Common stimuli to induce cardiovagal activities are deep breathing, Valsalva maneuver, and active standing. Deep and slow breaths at 5–6 times per minute maximize changes in heart rates or heart rate variability. Inspiration increases heart rate through vagal tone withdrawal and expiration decreases heart rate with vagal activation ( Fig. 10.1A ). The exact mechanism of the cardiovagal activities to the breathing cycles is largely unknown in humans although stretch receptors in the chest wall (Hering-Breuer reflex) and cardiac stretch receptors (Bainbridge reflex) play important roles in animals. It is believed that the breathing frequency at 5–6 breaths per minute create a maximum synchrony in the cardiovagal neurons in the brainstem resulting in the highest heart rate variability. There are various methods to measure heart rate changes. And patient’s heart range change is compared to age-specific normative data. A Valsalva maneuver produces dynamic changes in blood pressure and heart rate secondary to cardiovagal and sympathetic activities. Valsalva ratio, which reflects how rapidly heart rate drops following discontinuation of the Valsalva maneuver, is another measure of cardiovagal function. It will discussed later with sympathetic adrenergic measures. A 30:15 ratio (of heart rate) to an active standing is a third measure for cardiovagal function. With an active standing from a supine position, there is an acute shift in blood volume due to gravity and exercising muscle that draw in blood. Heart rate increases rapidly as a compensatory mechanism in order to minimize blood pressure drop secondary to the shift, then decreases with recovery of blood pressure . Heart rate reaches its peak at approximately 12 s after standing up. A 30:15 ratio is obtained by dividing an increased heart rate at 15 s after standing by a decreased heart rate at 30 s. It is also estimated by measuring a 15th RR interval and a 30th RR interval. However, because time to a peak heart rate can be different between healthy subjects and patients , a ratio of an absolute maximum to a minimum heart rate after standing can be used and increases sensitivity.

Figure 10.1

Deep breathing and Valsalva Maneuver. During a deep breathing test for cardiovagal evaluation (A, B), a subject is asked to take slow and deep breaths at 5–6 times per minutes. Heart rate (*) and the chest wall movement (arrow) are recorded simultaneously. Deep breathing in a healthy subject reveals normal heart rate variability seen as wide fluctuations in heart rate in sync with breathing (A). When cardiovagal function is severely impaired, heart rate rarely changes despite the good respiratory effort (B). A Valsalva maneuver changes heart rate (C, E) and blood pressure (D, F). Blood pressure during and after a Valsalva maneuver has four distinct phases (D). In a healthy subject, blood pressure has recovery during late phase 2 (2 L) following a drop during early phase 2 (2E). And blood pressure response shows overshooting (rapid increment in blood pressure above the baseline) during phase 4 (D). Numbers in D indicates four phases of blood pressure response including early phase 2 (2E) and late phase 2 (2 L). With the overshooting, heart rate drops abruptly from a maximum (*) to a lowest point (**), from which a Valsalva ratio can be measured (C). In autonomic failure, blood pressure fails to recover during phase 2 and overshooting is not seen (F) and the heart does not respond to the dropping blood pressure showing absent or minimal changes in heart rate (E). In (D) and (F), arrows indicate onsets and endings of forced expiration with its pressure. Heart rate and blood pressure are recorded and displayed by using WR-TestWorks software.

Sympathetic adrenergic function is assessed by recording beat-to-beat blood pressure in response to a Valsalva maneuver, active standing and passive standing on a tilt-table. With a volume clamped method of Peňáz, arterial blood pressure can be measured in a non-invasive and continuous way. For a Valsalva maneuver, a subject is asked to blow through a closed tube at expiratory pressure of 40 mmHg for 15 s. Blood pressure waveform during a Valsalva maneuver has four distinct phases ( Fig. 10.1D ). With the Valsalva maneuver, the glottis is closed and the subject breathes against the closed glottis causing a forced expiration and increased intrathoracic pressure. Its mechanical effect directly from the high intrathoracic pressure increases blood pressure during phase I. During phase II, the high intrathoracic pressure reduces venous return to the heart resulting in decreasing cardiac output and dropping blood pressure (early phase II). The dropping blood pressure is sensed by the baroreceptors in the carotid sinus, the great vessel and the right atrium triggering baroreflex. The efferent pathways of baroreflex work through cardiovagal withdrawal and sympathetic activation to the heart and the blood vessels. Peripheral α-adrenergic activation on the vasculatures constrict peripheral vasculature. It is the main mechanism that recovers blood pressure during late phase II. Right upon discontinuation of the forced expiration, there is a transient drop in blood pressure due to mechanical effects because the intrathoracic pressure becomes relatively negative abruptly (phase III). Heart rate starts to rise initially by vagal withdrawal and later mainly by β-adrenergic sympathetic cardiac activation during phase II and III. When the forced expiration is stopped, a large volume of venous blood returning to the heart is pumped out by the heart at the increased rate. This leads to excessively increased cardiac output and rapidly increasing blood pressure, also known as blood pressure ‘overshooting’ during phase IV. Therefore, β-adrenergic sympathetic activation contributes to overshooting. Recovery of blood pressure during late phase II and blood pressure overshooting during phase IV are markers of normal sympathetic adrenergic function. The blood pressure overshooting triggers baroreflex activating cardiovagal tone and drops heart rate rapidly. A Valsalva ratio, a cardiovagal measure, is calculated from a maximal heart rate during phase IV and a following minimal heart rate ( Fig. 10.1C ). Patient’s Valsalva ratio is compared to age and sex-specific normative data.

The quantitative sudomotor axon reflex test (QSART) is a method to evaluate the post-ganglionic sympathetic cholinergic pathway. A dual-chamber capsule is placed tightly on the skin at four standardized areas of limbs, usually three on the lower extremity and one on the upper. Solution with acetylcholine in an outer chamber of the capsule has direct contact with the skin within the air-tight seal. Acetylcholine is penetrated into the skin by iontophoresis and stimulates unmyelinated C-fibers innervating the sweat glands. Neuronal excitation on the stimulated axons spreads to neighboring axons by axon-to-axon reflex summoning more sweat glands. The sweat amount is estimated based on relative changes in humidity in an inner chamber of the capsule. QSWEAT is a commercialized version of QSART. QSART is designed to detect a length-dependent small-fiber neuropathy. Abnormal QSART findings that do not have a distal-dominant pattern need cautious clinical interpretation.

Thermoregulatory sweat test (TST)

TST is another sweat test that provides topographical information on loss of sweating. A patient remains in a supine position in a sweat chamber where a room temperature is maintained high with control of humidity in order to induce sweating. Powder mixture is spread over the front side of patient’s body. Relatively low pH of sweating changes the color of indicator in the powder mixture, either alizarin red or iodine. TST can be helpful in determining presence of extra-intestinal autonomic dysfunction, localizing sudomotor problems, determining severity of autonomic failure, and following progression of disease . Fig. 10.2 shows various patterns of sweating abnormalities in patients with different gastrointestinal problems seen at our autonomic clinic.

Figure 10.2

Three representative cases of thermoregulatory sweat test (TST). Patients with gastrointestinal motility diseases may show various patterns of anhidrosis (loss of sweating) on the test depending on associated or underlying neurological disorders and their severity. A distal anhidrosis with Holmes-Adie syndrome, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, and diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome (A). A regional anhidrosis with achalasia and positive anti-glutamic acid decarboxylase (anti-GAD) antibodies (B). A global anhidrosis with chronic gastroparesis and presumed autoimmune small-fiber neuropathy (C).

Skin biopsy

Skin biopsy is a pathological test for small-fiber neuropathies with relatively low risks to measure densities of mostly unmyelinated and thinly myelinated fibers in the epidermal layers of the skin. These fibers are mainly sensory nerve fibers. Bright-light immunohistochemistry protocol stains axons of the fibers with anti-protein gene product 9.5 antibody and makes them apparent under microscope as seen in Fig. 10.3 . Multiple sections from each skin sample are used to measure average intradermal nerve fiber densities . From the same samples of a skin biopsy, autonomic fibers innervating the sweat glands in the dermis can be evaluated and its methods for quantification have been improved by using computer software. New techniques reduce large variabilities originating from convoluted structure of the sweat glands . However, sweat gland nerve fiber density measurements through a skin biopsy have not been approved as a clinical diagnostic test for autonomic neuropathies yet although measurement of intraepidermal nerve fiber density is approved for clinical use. For research purpose, it is possible to assess autonomic innervation of other structures, such as blood vessels and arrector pili muscles, as well as to identify its neurochemical markers including tyrosine hydroxylase (sympathetic adrenergic fibers) and vasoactive intestinal peptide (sympathetic cholinergic fibers) .

Figure 10.3

Skin biopsy to measure intraepidermal nerve fibers. Bright-field immunohistochemistry of sections of punch skin biopsy samples with anti-protein gene product 9.5 antibody (PGP 9.5) staining reveals axons of unmyelinated and thin myelinated fibers. Sections from a lower thigh (A) and calf (B) of healthy subjects show intradermal nerve fibers branching up almost straight up to the skin surface (arrows) as well as dermal nerve bundles (triangles). In a section obtained from a lower thigh of patient with a small-fiber neuropathy, intradermal nerve fibers are visibly reduced (C). Intraepidermal nerve fiber density is measured from multiple sections of each biopsy site as described by Lauria et al .

Autonomic neuropathies

Various central and peripheral neurological diseases can be associated with gastroparesis. Gastrointestinal autonomic neuropathies can be present in peripheral neurological disorders such as diabetic autonomic neuropathy, familial amyloid neuropathy, paraneoplastic autonomic neuropathy, Guillain-Barre syndrome, autoimmune autonomic ganglionopathy (AAG), autoimmune sensory autonomic neuropathy, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) neuropathy. Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) is worth mentioning due to its increasing awareness and multiple co-morbidities including hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.

Diabetic autonomic neuropathy

Diabetic gastroparesis is likely due to various mechanisms, including impaired modulation from extrinsic autonomic dysfunction. But studies have shown variable correlation between gastroparesis and autonomic cardiovascular neuropathy as measured by abnormal heart rate response of autonomic reflex tests. Diabetic gastroparesis is discussed separately in Chapter 18 .

Guillain-Barré syndrome (acute inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculopathy)

Various viral infections may result in segmental or diffuse autonomic dysfunction. The most common autonomic symptoms tend to be related to either cardiovascular, gastrointestinal or both. Guillain-Barré syndrome is an acute inflammatory peripheral neuropathy following an immunological stimulant, most commonly an infection. Patients usually present with ascending paralysis due to demyelination in the spinal roots and/or peripheral nerves. In severe cases causing debilitating weakness and respiratory failure, pronounced autonomic dysfunction is likely. Hemodynamic instability and sweating are common autonomic manifestations. Ileus was the most common autonomic symptom followed by hypertension, hypotension, fever, heart rate issues, and urinary retention in a retrospective study of 187 patients . Gastroparesis as a delayed complication has been reported . Another scenario is that of impaired gastrointestinal motility after an episode of acute gastroenteritis. The gastrointestinal impairment can affect the stomach, small intestine or colon in various combinations. Gastrointestinal motility disorders include achalasia, gastroparesis, intestinal pseudo-obstruction, colonic inertia and rarely megacolon. Typically, the patient has a history of low-grade fever, fatigue, myalgia, abdominal pain, vomiting or diarrhea that last for several days . As the acute systemic symptoms resolve over the subsequent 5 to 7 days, the patient has residual gastrointestinal difficulties that reflect dysmotility. There may be significant afferent visceral symptoms such as some degree of abdominal pain, nausea, sense of fullness and early satiety with or without vomiting and disrupted bowel control. Many antecedent infectious agents could produce such inflammatory process. Among bacterial causes, Campylobacter jejuni is the most commonly identified. Among viral causes, cytomegalovirus and Epstein-Barr virus are the most common pathogens. More severe forms of Guillain-Barré syndrome, such as acute motor axonal neuropathy or acute motor and sensory axonal neuropathy, are more likely to have Campylobacter jejuni infection as a precipitant . Other infectious agents that may produce post-infectious gastroparesis include enteroviruses, rotavirus and zoster . Zika virus infection has been reported to be associated with Guillain-Barré syndrome but related gastroparesis has not been reported. A small portion of patients reported diarrhea . Autonomic reflex tests often reveal a disruption in the parasympathetic and sympathetic neural controls in various combinations. In some cases, quantitative sweat test shows also impaired postganglionic sudomotor function indicating some degree of post-infectious autonomic neuropathy either in a distal dominant pattern or in a non-length dependent pattern . Guillain-Barré syndrome is a monophasic illness and most patients, particularly younger ones, recover more or less completely within 24 months. Some of these patients express low levels of antibodies such as ganglionic, potassium or calcium channel antibodies that indicate post-infectious autoimmune activation. Subsequent follow-up often shows normalization of these antibody levels along with gradual clinical improvement . Pathological studies in animal models and individual case reports have revealed various pathological findings that include partial loss of ganglion cells, neuronal intranuclear inclusions, neural degeneration and apoptosis, intestinal neuronal dysplasia or hyperplasia, mitochondrial changes, inflammatory changes, neurotransmitter depletion and interstitial cell pathology . In patients with mild gastric dysmotility, unexplained nausea and vomiting can develop despite normal intrinsic enteric innervation . These patients often receive a diagnosis of a functional gastrointestinal disorder. Several tests (discussed in the Chapter 11, Chapter 12, Chapter 13, Chapter 14, Chapter 15, Chapter 16 ) may assess gastric motility. Scintigraphy imaging is a practical initial method of evaluating these patients. If gastric dysmotility is present, treatment options include dietary modifications and pharmacotherapy. In more severe cases, total parenteral nutrition may be necessary. Protracted gastroparesis can lead to additional neurological issues related mainly to vitamins, coenzyme Q10 and carnitine deficiency, which can lead to persistent neuropathic deficits.

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) autonomic neuropathy

Various authors have assessed autonomic symptoms by different questionnaire tools such as the survey of autonomic symptoms (SAS) and the autonomic symptom profile (ASP) . Gastroparesis symptoms (nausea, vomiting, or bloating) are common in HIV-positive patients with incidence of 37.5% . HIV patients with distal sensory neuropathy are more likely to have abnormal findings on autonomic reflex results. And autonomic symptoms are more common in this group with gastroparesis symptom (nausea, vomiting, or bloating after a small meal) seen in 24% in HIV patients with objective abnormalities in autonomic reflex . However, in a study of untreated HIV patients in Africa by Compostella et al. cardiovascular autonomic reflex were all normal or had only “borderline” response with no pathologically severe response although gastrointestinal dysfunction (bloated feeling of vomiting after a meal) was identified as frequently reported symptoms with orthostatic intolerance and secretomotor dysfunction . Solid gastric emptying is delayed in stronger association with advanced immunosuppression, weight loss and the presence of enteric infection. And autonomic reflex test does not have strong relation with delay in gastric emptying .

Autoimmune autonomic ganglionopathy (AAG)

Patients who developed severe symptomatic orthostatic hypotension and autonomic symptoms in other organs were reported as “pure pan-dysautonomia” a couple of decades ago . The authors speculated that it was a form of autonomic Guillain-Barré syndrome. Suarez and his colleagues reported 27 patients with idiopathic autonomic neuropathy . Vernino S et al reported autoantibodies targeting neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in the autonomic ganglia in patients with similar clinical features and have established a disease entity of autoimmune autonomic ganglionopathy . In the case series, the antibody was positive in 9% of patients with idiopathic gastrointestinal dysmotility. The condition can follow a prodromal viral illness or a surgical procedure. It seems to favor adults to elderly population, and there is a slight female predominance. While similar cases may occur in children, the incidence of antibodies is lower in pediatric group. AAG causes neurogenic orthostatic hypotension and multiple organ symptoms with increased titers of ganglionic acetylcholine receptor (gAChR) antibody. Autonomic failure, usually with higher titers of gAChR antibody, is characterized by cholinergic-dominant autonomic failure including sicca symptoms, poorly reactive or non-reactive pupils, loss of sweating, neurogenic bladders, intestinal motility problems . Affected men often report erectile dysfunction, with or without retrograde ejaculation. Pupillary reaction can be slowed, and the bedside examination may reveal partial tonic pupils (Adie’s pupil). The pupillary abnormalities and the sicca symptoms often contribute to visual blurring. Nineteen of 27 patients in the original report had gastrointestinal symptoms and half of 18 patients in a Mayo Clinic study reported symptoms of upper GI tract including early satiety, postprandial nausea and vomiting . The titers of gAChR antibody have weaker correlation with upper GI symptoms, while higher titers are associated with severe lower GI symptoms . But cholinergic autonomic failure assessed by autonomic reflex tests and composite autonomic symptom evaluation were more severe with higher titers, which is also linked to severity of neurogenic orthostatic hypotension . gAChR antibody can be detected in various conditions other than AAG and co-exists with other autoimmune antibodies. When it is detected in other conditions, titers tend to be low . Titers higher than 0.20 nmol/L have high specificity for AAG. gAChR antibody can be negative in up to 50% of patents presenting with typical clinical features , and a portion of the patients may become sero-positive on a repeated testing 6 to 12 months later (personal observations). AAG often has a subacute onset, reaching its peak of severity in autonomic symptoms within 6 weeks. A disproportionate involvement of the enteric nervous system favors AAG, and aids in the differential diagnosis . A lack of progression also differentiates AAG from neurodegenerative diseases with autonomic failure such as autonomic alpha-synucleinopathies. Recovery can be slow, and is incomplete in most cases.

Seronegative autoimmune autonomic ganglionopathy

There is another rare acute/subacute peripheral autonomic failure similar to AAG but without detectable serum gAChR antibody. Due to the absence of the antibody, it is commonly called seronegative autoimmune autonomic ganglionopathies or neuropathies. Clinical characteristics are somewhat different from those of seropositive AAG. Patients are more likely to have sensory symptoms in the limbs and show sympathetic dominant autonomic failure rather than cholinergic failure. They respond better to steroid-based treatments while seropositive AAG patients respond better to treatments targeting antibodies such as intravenous immunoglobulin, rituximab and plasmapheresis . Only a few cases have been published. Although nerve conduction studies are abnormal in a minority of patients, this disease may be a different entity with a pathologic process in the peripheral nerves rather than the autonomic ganglia. Nausea, vomiting, gastroparesis and weight loss have been reported in some of them. When there are concurrent sensory symptoms, clinical picture is not distinguishable from acute autonomic and sensory neuropathy.

Acute autonomic and sensory neuropathy (AASN)

Koike et al. published a pivotal clinical research about 21 patients with acute autonomic and sensory neuropathy and autopsy findings . Symptoms related to gastrointestinal tract such as vomiting, abdominal distension, constipation and diarrhea can be initial or dominant autonomic features and may delay neurological evaluation. Sensory deficits are usually superficial including pinprick, temperature, and light-touch in asymmetric and segmental patterns rather than in a length-dependent pattern. Sensory deficits can involve other modalities (vibration and proprioception) or in visceral organs. About half of patients in Koike et al series needed total parental nutrition due to severe paralytic ileus or swallowing difficulty secondary to oropharyngeal sensory deficits. Autopsy of a patient revealed severely reduced neuronal loss in the myenteric plexus. Due to selective involvements of sensory fibers in patchy patterns, neuronal cell loss was seen in the spinal segments of sympathetic ganglia. Preservation of the motor fibers and loss of the sensory fibers made remarkable multifocal patchy distribution of myelinated fibers on cross-sectioned images of the peripheral nerves.

Paraneoplastic and other autoimmune autonomic neuropathy

Paraneoplastic autonomic neuropathy

Paraneoplastic autoimmune process can result in autonomic neuropathy or cause acute/subacute clinical presentations indistinguishable to post-infectious autoimmune autonomic ganglionopathy. Paraneoplastic autonomic neuropathy may be limited to an enteric neuropathy without other autonomic or neurological symptoms. Gastrointestinal motility issues are common in paraneoplastic autonomic neuropathy and patients can presents with gastroparesis, achalasia, or chronic intestinal pseudo-obstruction . Autoimmune processes due to paraneoplastic syndromes can affect parts of central or peripheral nervous system causing limbic encephalitis (cognitive decline, seizure, psychiatric manifestations), cerebellar degeneration (ataxia), brainstem encephalitis, myelitis, subacute sensory neuronopathy and acute sensorimotor neuropathy. When one of these syndromes or their combination occurs, a paraneoplastic neurological syndrome should be considered .

Common neuronal autoantibodies associated with paraneoplastic autonomic neuropathy are anti-Hu (ANNA-1), anti-CRMP-55 (anti-CV2) and gAChR antibodies . The symptoms of paraneoplastic syndromes usually precede detection of a cancer. Patients with ANNA-1 antibodies may presents with various types of peripheral neuropathies, limbic encephalitis, opsoclonus/myoclonus, Lambert-Eaton syndrome, myelopathy. About 12% of patients with anti-Hu antibodies have gastrointestinal dysmotility independent of cardiovascular autonomic dysfunction and gastroparesis is the most common . Anti-CRMP-5 (anti-CV-2) antibodies are a major neuronal autoantibody associated with autonomic neuropathy or multifocal neurological signs such as chorea, cranial neuropathy, loss of olfaction/taste, cerebellar ataxia and dementia. Twenty-four out of 116 patients with CRMP-5 positive patients in a retrospective study at Mayo Clinic had isolated gastrointestinal dysmotility as a predominant neurological symptom . A small group of patients with positive gAChR antibodies have history of malignancies and their clinical manifestations are similar to those with seropositive AAG . Common cancers in association with gAChR antibodies are breast, prostate, lung and gastrointestinal cancers. Interestingly, most patients already had known malignancies and only a few patients found a cancer later in a study . But a different study showed detection of gAChR antibodies can help diagnose paraneoplastic syndrome and cancer, particularly non-small cell lung cancer . Therefore, a judicious work-up to exclude malignancy is recommended.

Other autoimmune autonomic neuropathies

Subsequent studies found that gastric dysmotility with additional antibodies including calcium channel, potassium channels and glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD). These antibodies are not always paraneoplastic but some of them, particularly N-type calcium channel antibodies, have a higher likelihood of an associated malignancy. While many of these patients have neurological symptoms, it is rather common for them to present with prominent gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, weight loss, and gastroparesis. Therefore, the initial presentation may be to a gastroenterologist rather than to a neurologist.

In other neurological disorders, antibodies against a specific antigen may target an anatomical structure controlling gastric motility. An example is that of antibodies to aquaporin-4 associated with neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorders. In this condition, the antibodies may target the area postrema and cause vomiting, early satiety or diarrhea. In the case of GAD antibodies, the patients may present with stiff person syndrome, ataxia, epilepsy or diabetes, and these patients will have gastrointestinal autonomic symptoms. Dipeptidyl-peptidase-like protein 6 (DPPX) is a regulatory protein for the Kv4.2 potassium channel, and is present in the central nervous system and myenteric plexus. Encephalitis associated with DDPX antibodies presents with mood changes, memory loss, and psychosis. Most patients also have features of central nervous system hyperexcitability, which include myoclonus, tremor, and exaggerated startle response (hyperekplexia). Gastrointestinal dysmotility is frequent in this disorder, and diarrhea and weight loss may actually proceed the onset of neurological symptoms . Evidence suggests that several of these antibodies bind to their target antigen and provoke cellular dysfunction. Patients with these neurological autoimmune disorders often present with subacute neurological impairment, such as encephalopathy, psychosis, seizures, and neuropathy. Timely recognition and treatment often leads to dramatic improvement and good outcomes.

In one study of 8 patients with functional gastrointestinal disorders, Camilleri and Fealey found sympathetic denervation in all, and parasympathetic dysfunction in three . We and others found that rapid gastric emptying is more common than gastroparesis in patients with autonomic dysfunction and that inflammatory bowel disease is often associated with abnormal autonomic gut motility .

Sjögren syndrome has sicca symptoms and lymphocytic infiltration of exocrine glands. Peripheral nervous system involvement, particularly sensory neuropathy is well known. More than half of Sjögren syndrome patients report symptoms of autonomic dysfunction . Autonomic features may precede the diagnosis.

Hereditary amyloidosis neuropathy

Amyloid transthyretin (ATTR) amyloidosis is a systemic disease causing extracellular deposition of insoluble beta-structured fibrils and protein aggregates. ATTR amyloidosis can be of a hereditary form due to mutations in transthyretin gene or be a wild-type (wt-ATTR amyloidosis). Transthyretin (TTR) is a plasma transporter for thyroid hormones and retinol-binding protein and mainly synthesized in the liver. The transthyretin monomer has an approximate beta-structure after folding its structure. Four monomers make a tetramer with binding sites for thyroxine and retinol binding protein/vitamin A. Pathogenic mutations in TTR gene destabilize the TTR tetramers releasing abnormal monomers that aggregate as beta-structured fibrils, then amyloid deposits. In addition to pathological mutations, aging is also an important factor that decreases stability of TTR tetramers .

Gastrointestinal symptoms in hATTR amyloidosis have been studied in an international, multi-center, longitudinal study, the Transthyretin Amyloidosis Outcomes Survey (THAOS) . This study showed that gastrointestinal manifestations are common in hATTR amyloidosis and that unintentional weight loss is the most common symptom with early satiety as the second. mBMI (modified body mass index), an index for nutritional status obtained by multiplying body mass index with serum albumin, and an index for health-related quality of life are significantly associated with upper and lower gastrointestinal symptoms indicating presence of the symptoms has negative impacts on clinical outcomes although individual symptoms did not show such association. Gastrointestinal symptoms can be affected by multiple factors. With TTR mutations causing mainly cardiac problems such as the V122I, I68L, and L111M variants, gastrointestinal symptoms are not more frequent than in general population. Among non-cardiac dominant TTR mutations, the V30M variant has a higher prevalence of gastrointestinal symptoms than non-V30M variants. Early-onset type (onset <50 years) also increases risks of gastrointestinal symptoms. Not surprisingly, the longer duration of disease is, the more common gastrointestinal symptoms are. But each symptom has a different pattern. Early satiety is common as an early symptom and does not increase in frequency significantly during progression of the disease. Fecal incontinence is more frequent with a longer duration of disease. When considering an endoscopic biopsy, the upper GI tract (the stomach and duodenum) has higher amyloid deposits than lower GI tract. Sampling needs to be deep enough to include mucosal vessels because amyloid contents may not be seen in the mucosa .

Treatment of GI complications due to hATTR amyloidosis should focus on symptomatic managements addressing quality of life, malabsorption, and bacterial overgrowth. Treatments targeting the underlying pathology include stabilizers of TTR tetramers (tafamidis and diflunisal) and liver transplantation. Recently two agents that reduce hepatic production of TTR by RNA interference have been approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration. Both patisiran and inotersen were studied in hATTR amyloidosis with polyneuropathy in randomized, double-blinded, multicenter studies . Patients treated with either medication showed significant improvement in neuropathy-related indexes and quality of life measures. Autonomic dysfunctions were assessed in the study with patisiran only by using Composite Autonomic Symptom Score (COMPASS 31). COMPASS 31 is a scoring system using a questionnaire related to autonomic symptoms of multiple organ systems including gastrointestinal system. Patisiran did improve autonomic dysfunction in general but the study results did not provide information on symptoms of each organ system within COMPASS 31 .

Ehlers-Danlos syndrome

Ehlers Danlos syndrome (EDS) is a rather common condition that can be associated with gastric dysmotility. The prevalence of EDS is approximately 1:5000 . EDS has multiple subtypes . Hypermobile EDS is the most common subtype observed (71%), followed by classic EDS (11%), vascular EDS (7%) and other subtypes (10%) . Joint symptoms are the most common mode of presentation (60%). Gastrointestinal symptoms can be the presenting symptom in 9% of patients, increase over time and seem equally prevalent among all EDS subtypes. Diverse gastrointestinal symptoms including abdominal pain, nausea, constipation, heartburn, irritable bowel syndrome, vomiting, and diarrhea have been reported. In one large retrospective study , 56% of EDS patients (378/687 patients) had gastrointestinal symptoms, which were far more common in women. Esophagogastroduodenoscopy in 38% of the 378 patients revealed various abnormalities such as gastritis, hiatal hernia and reflux esophagitis. Gastric emptying in 76/378 patients was abnormal in 17 (22%): 8/17 had accelerated and 9/17 had delayed gastric emptying. Colonic transit time measured in 46/378 patients was abnormal in 28% (13/46): 9/13 had delayed and 4/13 had accelerated transit.

Gastric dysmotility in EDS has likely dual etiologies. Abnormal elasticity in the connective tissue of the gastrointestinal wall may disrupt the physiological motility by altering visceral compliance. A less common factor is the vascular component. Vascular studies reveal aneurysms in abdominal vessels in vascular EDS. Vascular anomalies may predispose to median arcuate ligament syndrome. But EDS is also associated with autonomic dysfunction, which contributes to some degree of segmental GI denervation. Some EDS patients have fibromyalgia; evaluation often finds small fiber neuropathy in these patients . This neuropathy contributes to various functional GI complaints by altering pain threshold, visceral sensitivity and gut motility.

Other rare genetic disorders associated with gastroparesis include mitochondrial neurogastrointestinal encephalopathy due to a mutation in the thymidine phosphorylase gene . Gastroparesis also occurs rarely in mitochondrial conditions secondary to mutation of the DNA polymerase gamma gene (POLG) . There are rare cases of sodium channel mutations causing small fiber neuropathy with gastroparesis .

Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS)

Patients with autonomic or small fiber neuropathy, including those with EDS and post-infectious syndrome, have a predisposition to orthostatic intolerance. This intolerance may take the form of orthostatic hypotension (early or delayed) or that of postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). POTS is a heterogeneous autonomic syndrome with exaggerated postural tachycardia and relevant symptoms of orthostatic intolerance. An exaggerated postural tachycardia is defined as a sustained increase in heart rate by at least 30 bpm (40 bpm for those at 19 or younger) without a significant drop in blood pressure (orthostatic hypotension) in 10 minutes after active or passive standing . Patients experience various symptoms of chronic orthostatic intolerance for more than 6 months resulting from reduced cerebral hypoperfusion (dizziness, lightheadedness, vision changes, near-fainting/fainting) and increased sympathetic activation (palpitations, shakiness, sweating, flushing, chest pain). POTS can be divided into three main types: neuropathic, central hyperadrenergic and deconditioning. But it is common that a patient with POTS may have overlapping clinical manifestations of different types. Additional factors include a relative deficit in blood volume , imbalance of the renin–angiotensin–aldosterone pathway , or autoantibodies targeting peripheral adrenergic receptors . Most patients report a history of preceding events, often infection, which raise possibilities of post-infectious or autoimmune process causing limited autonomic neuropathy (neuropathic POTS) or deconditioning due to acute illness. Patients tend to have various combinations of extra-cardiovascular symptoms including gastrointestinal, genitourinary, peripheral sensory, and pupilomotor complaints. Regardless of whether there is a preceding infection, gastrointestinal symptoms are commonly reported in POTS patients. A pooled data analysis from six studies showed that gastrointestinal symptoms have a prevalence of approximately 69% with nausea and abdominal pain as the most common . In a retrospective study, gastric emptying studies were abnormal in almost two-third cases of POTS and rapid gastric emptying was more common than delayed emptying , which is consistently observed in other studies . In the study, rapid gastric emptying was associated with physical deconditioning clinically determined by evaluating physicians based on level of reduced exercise capacity affecting normal daily activities. And delayed gastric emptying was more related with blood pressure drop at the first minute of a tilt-table test and sympathetic adrenergic dysfunction on autonomic reflex test . Pathogenesis of gastric dysmotility in POTS are likely multifactorial. As mentioned above, POTS is a heterogeneous condition of chronic orthostatic intolerance with multiple associated conditions including hypermobile Ehlers Danlos syndrome, small-fiber neuropathy, chronic fatigue syndrome, migraine, generalized pain, sleep disorders, and mast cell activation syndrome. Therefore, it is practically impossible to explain gastrointestinal symptoms in POTS patients with a single mechanism. A large portion of POTS patients are relatively young females with hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome or hypermobility spectrum disorders. Patients with generalized hypermobile joints are more likely to have gastrointestinal motility findings and related symptoms compared to those without hypermobile joints. Its risk increases with the presence of POTS although there is no clear explanation. Mehr et al. hypothesized that the gastrointestinal system derived of sympathetic inhibitory innervation in neuropathic POTS is more likely to develop excessive and uncoordinated activities. The authors also suggested that uncoordinated or uncoupled neurovascular regulation in postprandial periods causes excessive blood pooling in splanchnic circulation and relevant postprandial symptoms in POTS patients . A small subset of patients with orthostatic intolerance revealed evidence of eosinophilic esophagitis or gastritis during GI investigations. A recent retrospective study found POTS prevalence of 1.25% in patients with eosinophilic gastrointestinal disorder, as compared to 0.17% in general population . There are animal models that suggest impaired enteric neuronal function in the presence of eosinophilic and neutrophil infiltrates . There is also a rare case report of pediatric patients with intestinal pseudo-obstruction, associated with eosinophilic infiltrate . On the other hand, the same models show little neurodegeneration even in the presence of significant eosinophilic infiltrates. Therefore, the exact mechanistic relation remains unknown.


Gastroparesis is a common manifestation of most autonomic disorders, both peripheral and central. In some cases, gastrointestinal autonomic neuropathy is the main presenting symptom, and precedes other neurologic and autonomic findings. Gastroenterologists should become suspicious of these conditions, particularly if the preliminary gastrointestinal workups are negative or non-contributory. Collaboration with neurologists in working up these patients becomes important.


We thank Christine Gralapp, MA, CMI, for medical illustrations of thermoregulatory sweat test.


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Feb 4, 2021 | Posted by in GASTROENTEROLOGY | Comments Off on Autonomic neuropathies and gastroparesis
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