Septo-optic-pituitary dysplasia complex

Peter Humphreys MD (Dr. Humphreys of the University of Ottawa and Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario has no relevant financial relationships to disclose.)
Harvey B Sarnat MD FRCPC MS, editor. (Dr. Sarnat of the University of Calgary has no relevant financial relationships to disclose.)
Originally released July 18, 1994; last updated July 21, 2016; expires July 21, 2019

This article includes discussion of septo-optic-pituitary dysplasia complex, de Morsier syndrome, congenital hypopituitarism with absence of septum pellucidum, congenital pituitary dwarfism with posterior pituitary ectopia, optic nerve hypoplasia, and optic nerve hypoplasia with hypopituitarism. The foregoing terms may include synonyms, similar disorders, variations in usage, and abbreviations.


In this article, the author reviews the clinical features and proposed pathogeneses of septo-optic-pituitary dysplasia complex, including an extensive discussion of the genetic and acquired factors appearing to contribute to this disorder and possible ways by which the 2 contrasting factors may be linked. Although relatively rare, septo-optic-pituitary dysplasia complex is a highly relevant topic for pediatric neurologists, ophthalmologists, and pediatricians as the identification of visual impairment due to optic nerve hypoplasia requires the physician to consider the possibility of congenital hypopituitarism, a disorder that may be life-threatening if undetected and untreated. This update includes an interesting report that optical coherence tomographic investigation of the normal eye may reveal evidence of a much milder degree of hypoplasia in cases of apparent unilateral optic nerve hypoplasia.

Key points


• Any of the 3 key components of septo-optic-pituitary dysplasia (absence of the septum pellucidum, optic nerve hypoplasia, hypopituitarism) may occur alone or in any conceivable combination.


• There are a wide variety of developmental brain anomalies that may occur in association with septo-optic-pituitary dysplasia, the most important of which are agenesis of the corpus callosum, lobar holoprosencephaly, schizencephaly, and focal cortical dysplasia.


• When encountering a patient (including a fetus) with optic nerve hypoplasia or septal agenesis, the clinician must consider the possibility that the patient may also have – or eventually develop – hypopituitarism.


• Although mutations in many different genes have been associated with septo-optic-pituitary dysplasia complex, most cases of this disorder are sporadic and may result from a combination of 1 or more genetic polymorphisms and an early pregnancy vascular disruption phenomenon in the basal forebrain.

Historical note and terminology

The combination of bilateral optic nerve hypoplasia and congenital absence of the septum pellucidum was first described by Reeves in 1941 (Reeves 1941). Fifteen years later, in a landmark paper, de Morsier collated 36 published cases of absence of the septum pellucidum: 12 pathological studies (including a new one of his own) and 24 cases detected by pneumoencephalography (de Morsier 1956). Among the 36 cases, de Morsier found 9 having a combination of absent septum pellucidum and a variety of congenital ocular anomalies that included anophthalmia, optic nerve “atrophy,” and optic tract malrotation. Believing that the combined presence of these 2 locations of basal forebrain anomaly was more than coincidental, de Morsier coined the term "septo-optic dysplasia" to describe the phenomenon (de Morsier 1956).

As Garcia-Filion and Borchert pointed out, de Morsier did not actually report a case having both septal agenesis and clearly described optic nerve hypoplasia (although he did mention Reeves' earlier report) (Garcia-Filion and Borchert 2013a). Nevertheless, with the passage of time, de Morsier's original conception of a combination of septal agenesis with any type of congenital ocular anomaly has been gradually converted into the more restricted connotation of septal agenesis with bilateral or unilateral optic nerve hypoplasia. As a somewhat ironic consequence of this migration in terminology, the eponym “de Morsier syndrome” (for “septo-optic dysplasia”) has been employed to describe a phenomenon that de Morsier himself never described.

In 1970, Hoyt and colleagues observed that some cases of septo-optic dysplasia also had hypopituitary dwarfism; hence, the evolution of the expanded term "septo-optic-pituitary dysplasia," the descriptor most often used now (Hoyt et al 1970). In this article, the term "septo-optic dysplasia" will be used only for the combination of optic nerve hypoplasia and absent septum pellucidum without hypopituitarism, whereas “septo-optic-pituitary dysplasia” refers to the additional presence of hypopituitarism.

With the advent of improved imaging techniques (CT scanning, MRI), as well as a number of pathological studies (Roessmann et al 1987), it has become clear that the 3 cardinal manifestations of the syndrome may each occur alone, or they may occur in several different combinations. Bilateral optic nerve hypoplasia and hypopituitarism may occur without absence of the septum pellucidum (Costin and Murphree 1985; Brodsky and Glasier 1993; Riedl et al 2008); optic nerve hypoplasia and absent septum pellucidum occur without pituitary dysfunction (Reeves 1941; Brodsky and Glasier 1993); and all 3 manifestations occur together (Hoyt et al 1970). To date, hypopituitarism in combination with absence of the septum pellucidum, unless accompanied by corpus callosum dysgenesis, has not been reported.

Furthermore, septo-optic-pituitary dysplasia may be associated with a broad spectrum of other cerebral anomalies, including lobar holoprosencephaly (Roessmann et al 1987; Polizzi et al 2006), olfactory tract and bulb hypoplasia (Levine et al 2001), basal encephalocele (Periakaruppan et al 2009), schizencephaly (Aicardi and Goutieres 1981; Barkovich et al 1989; Kuban et al 1989), partial or complete absence of the corpus callosum (Zeki et al 1992; Stevens and Dobyns 2004), gray matter heterotopia (Brodsky and Glasier 1993), a variety of unilateral or bilateral focal cortical dysplasias (Nuri Sener 1996; Miller et al 2000; Stevens and Dobyns 2004), porencephaly (Aicardi and Goutieres 1981; Kuban et al 1989), hippocampal hypoplasia (Riedl et al 2008), absence of the epithalamic structures including the pituitary gland (Severino et al 2014), periventricular leukomalacia (Brodsky and Glasier 1993), fusion of the cerebellar hemispheres (Michaud et al 1982), and partial absence of the falx cerebri (Riedl et al 2008).

There is increasing evidence to show that the borders of the syndrome of septo-optic-pituitary dysplasia are, at best, indistinct. For example, major midline developmental brain anomalies (ie, lobar and semilobar holoprosencephaly, agenesis of the corpus callosum) may be accompanied by pituitary insufficiency in the absence of any ocular pathology (Cameron et al 1999). Hahn and colleagues reported a case of so-called septopreoptic holoprosencephaly (midline fusion restricted to the septal and preoptic areas, sparing the orbital frontal lobes) associated with hypopituitarism but with no apparent visual impairment (Hahn et al 2010). Finally, cases of isolated pituitary insufficiency and posterior pituitary lobe ectopia, without ocular or septal anomalies, have been associated with periventricular gray matter heterotopia (Mitchell et al 2002).

Given the seemingly endless reported variations of the septo-optic-pituitary dysplasia syndrome, it is not surprising that there is considerable debate in the literature concerning the most appropriate name for this disorder. Many publications have adopted an alternative definition of “septo-optic dysplasia” put forward by Kelberman and Dattani: i) optic nerve hypoplasia, ii) pituitary hormone abnormalities, and iii) midline brain defects, including agenesis of the septum pellucidum and/or corpus callosum (Kelberman and Dattani 2007). Although this definition has the merit of including callosal agenesis as a major diagnostic criterion, it also permits the awkward situation in which a patient with septal-pituitary dysplasia but normal eyes is deemed to have “septo-optic dysplasia” – a terminological contradiction that could easily lead to diagnostic confusion.

In recognition of the remarkable variety of central nervous system anomalies that are associated with septo-optic-pituitary dysplasia, Polizzi and colleagues suggested the use of an umbrella term that would cover most eventualities: “septo-optic dysplasia complex” (Polizzi et al 2006). In order to emphasize the clinical importance of pituitary insufficiency in this disorder, as well as to acknowledge the contribution of Hoyt and colleagues (Hoyt et al 1970), it seems reasonable to modify the terminology of Polizzi and colleagues to “septo-optic-pituitary dysplasia complex.”

In light of the enormous variability in anatomical and clinical manifestations just described, it has been suggested that septo-optic-pituitary dysplasia complex is really nothing but a hodgepodge of congenital brain anomalies whose apparent association is the result of ascertainment biases (eg, optic nerve hypoplasia, pituitary dwarfism). Although this conclusion has much to recommend it, the so-called syndrome of septo-optic-pituitary dysplasia complex has continued to merit attention because its most obvious clinical feature, optic nerve hypoplasia with early visual impairment or blindness, has required the physician to consider the possibility of congenital hypopituitarism, a disorder that may be life-threatening if undetected and untreated.

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