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  • Updated 05.16.2020
  • Released 01.24.1994
  • Expires For CME 05.16.2023

Prader-Willi syndrome


This article includes discussion of Prader-Willi syndrome or Prader-Labhart-Willi syndrome. The term hypotonia-hypomentia-hypogonadism-obesity syndrome is no longer used. The foregoing terms may include synonyms, similar disorders, variations in usage, and abbreviations.


Prader-Willi syndrome is a sporadic condition characterized by neonatal hypotonia, hypogonadism, obesity, mental retardation, small hands and feet, and characteristic facies. Explanation of how both Prader-Willi syndrome and Angelman syndrome could share the same deletion in chromosome 15q11-q13 established these disorders as human models of genomic imprinting and greatly advanced understanding of genetic diseases. Advances in understanding the complex genetic and molecular mechanisms underlying the pathophysiology of this condition have been included in this update. One of the most intriguing developments reported in this review is the creation of a possible treatment method for Prader-Willi syndrome that involves reactivation of the silenced maternal-origin genes at the 15q11-q13 site. The author also discusses 2 compounds capable of inhibiting a gene product (euchromatin histone lysine N-methyltransferase-2) that normally suppresses the maternal-origin Prader-Willi syndrome genes; administration of one of these compounds to neonatal snord116-deleted Prader-Willi mice for 5 days significantly improved survival from universal mortality by post-natal day 16 to (in 15% of cases) adult age.

Key points

• Prader-Willi syndrome is the most common genetic cause of severe obesity.

• Prader-Willi syndrome has a characteristic clinical presentation consisting of severe neonatal hypotonia and feeding difficulties followed, after one year of age, by insatiable hyperphagia, developmental delay, and behavioral disturbances.

• As a result of hypothalamic dysfunction, individuals with Prader-Willi syndrome demonstrate impaired pituitary function manifested, variously, as hypogonadism, growth failure, and adrenocortical insufficiency.

• Typically a sporadic disorder, Prader-Willi syndrome results from lack of function in one or more paternally inherited genes located at 15q11-q13, either as a result of deletion of the paternal copy or due to maternal uniparental disomy (in which both copies of the 15q11-q13 region are of maternal origin and inactivated).

• Extreme obesity in Prader-Willi syndrome may be avoided by strict control of dietary intake; the marked restriction in linear growth responds well to growth hormone supplementation.

Historical note and terminology

Prader-Willi syndrome, a condition characterized by infantile hypotonia, mental retardation, hyperphagia with obesity, hypogonadism, and characteristic dysmorphic features, was first described by Prader, Labhart, and Willi in 1956 (137).

A quarter century later, the demonstration of a deletion in chromosome 15q11-q13 in 60% of patients with Prader-Willi syndrome suggested an etiology for this condition (99). However, the identification of patients without this deletion and the fact that Angelman syndrome, a distinct condition, shared the same deleted region (109) confused the issue, prompting some to doubt the importance of the cytogenetic deletion in this condition (181).

The clarification of this dilemma has been an important advance in our understanding of genetic disease. Prader-Willi syndrome and Angelman syndrome have been established as human models of the role of genomic imprinting in human disease (74; 110). Whether or not a given patient has Prader-Willi syndrome or Angelman syndrome depends on the sex of the parent with whom the deletion originates or on uniparental disomy, the inheritance of 2 copies of a gene from 1 parent. The differential expression of alleles in the 15q11-q13 region is the result of modification of maternal and paternal contributions to the zygote during gametogenesis (132; 76).

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