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Carney Complex

Editor: Georges Elhomsy Updated: 3/3/2024 2:32:31 AM


Carney complex is a rare genetic tumoral disorder associated with one of the multiple endocrine neoplasia syndromes (MEN) or with primary pigmented nodular adrenal dysplasia (PPNAD). Carney complex affects multiple glands in the body, such as the thyroid, pituitary, and adrenal glands. The most common clinical effects are on the adrenocortical axis, and CNC can cause Cushing syndrome. Other hormonal systems can also be affected. Carney complex is also known to cause the following: cardiac myxomas, abnormal pigmentation and myxomas of the skin, breast myxomatosis, melanotic schwannoma, and testicular and ovarian tumors. Most of the morbidity and mortality are related to cardiac myxomas and schwannomas. Symptomatic treatment usually involves bilateral adrenalectomy, but cases can sometimes be treated without surgical intervention.[1][2]


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Approximately 25% of cases occur sporadically due to a de novo mutation. Carney complex was initially thought to be autosomal dominant, but recently, 2 genetic loci have been linked to Carney complex. CNC gene 1 is a germline mutation in a regulatory subunit 1A of protein kinase A (PRKAR1A) located at 17q22-24 observed in about two-thirds of CNC patients.[3][4]

The second locus has been seen on chromosome 2p16, but no specific gene has been identified. Alterations in a locus at 2p16 have been reported in patients with PRKAR1A gene mutations.

Inactivating mutations of phosphodiesterase genes PDE11A and, more rarely, PDE8B have also been observed in patients with isolated micronodular pigmented (PPNAD) or non-pigmented hyperplasia. These mutations result in premature stop codon generation or single-base substitutions in the catalytic domain of the protein involved in Carney complex.


The exact prevalence of Carney complex is unknown. Around 750 cases from many ethnicities have been reported worldwide since 1985. The prevalence can be underestimated because the diagnosis is challenging, and the awareness of this rare and complex disorder is lacking in the medical community.[5]


The constellation of symptoms includes 4 major criteria:[6]

  1. Spotty skin pigmentation: Pigmented lentigines and blue nevi on the face, neck, and trunk, including the lips, conjunctivae, and sclera. Abnormal skin pigmentation may be present at birth, but lentigines develop during puberty.
  2. Endocrine tumors: Primary pigmented nodular adrenocortical disease (PPNAD) is the most common endocrine finding in Carney Complex. Less common findings include growth hormone-secreting pituitary adenomas, thyroid adenomas, and thyroid carcinomas.
  3. Myxomas: These include cardiac myxomas (most significant), breast myxomatosis, osteochondromyxomas, and cutaneous and mucosal myxomas. 
  4. Nonendocrine tumors: These include psammomatous melanotic schwannomas, breast ductal adenomas, testicular large cell calcifying Sertoli cells (LCCSC), and ovarian cysts.[6]

Definitive diagnosis of CNC requires 2 or more of these manifestations. Diagnosis may also be made if one of the above major criteria is present and a first-degree relative has CNC or an inactivating mutation of PRKAR1A. About 80% of patients with PPNAD show a variant in the PRKAR1A gene. Cardiac myxomas and psammomatous schwannomas are the most common causes of mortality. Cushing syndrome is the most common clinical syndrome present in about 25% of patients with Carney complex. This requires treatment due to the long-term deleterious effects of prolonged corticosteroid exposure.[5]


The skin biopsy is usually not performed for lentiginous pigmentation unless there is a suspicion of malignancy. Histologically, lentigines are characterized by elongation of epidermal ridges with increased basal layer pigmentation.

Cutaneous myxomas demonstrate a non-encapsulated proliferation of spindled or stellate dermal fibroblasts in a loose, mucinous stroma in the dermis. Bizarre multinucleated cells and regular mitotic figures can be seen.

Blue nevi characteristically demonstrate highly pigmented melanocytes in the superficial and reticular dermis. Large epithelioid cells with minimal pigmentation and abundant cytoplasm arranged in nests in the dermis are features suggestive of epithelioid blue nevus.

 If PPNAD is present, the adrenal glands may be normal-sized or slightly enlarged with many small micronodules that are brown, black, or yellow. The nodules are generally 1 to 4 mm in size.[5]

History and Physical

Endocrine Manifestations

Cushing syndrome and nodular primary pigmented adrenocortical disease

Cushing syndrome due to nodular primary pigmented adrenocortical disease (PPNAD) is more frequent in females and young adults. The incidence peaks during the second and third decades of life. Clinical signs are similar to those observed in patients presenting with other causes of increased cortisol levels.

In patients with histological evidence for PPNAD, 60% to 70% of patients with Carney complex exhibit Cushing syndrome. The disease was named after the macroscopic appearance of the adrenal cortex, characterized by the small-pigmented nodules less than 10 mm in diameter, most often surrounded by the atrophic cortex. The disease is bilateral, with primary involvement of both adrenal glands.[1]


Pituitary tumors typically involve the growth hormone-producing cells and can cause acromegaly. Acromegaly in Carney complex has a slow, progressive course and does not appear until the third decade of life. Clinical acromegaly is uncommon and is seen in approximately 10% to 15% of patients. About 75% of patients with Carney complex may have asymptomatic elevation of IGF-1 and growth hormone.[7] 


Thyroid nodules are relatively common in patients with Carney complex. Almost 75% of patients are found to have cystic or multinodular disease on ultrasound. Thyroid nodules are often follicular-type, benign, nontoxic adenomas. About 3% of patients will have thyroid cancer; it is most often papillary carcinoma that can be multiple and sometimes quite aggressive, indicating the need for chronic surveillance of the thyroid.[8]

Gonadal tumors (testicular and ovarian lesions)

Testicular tumors: The most common types are large-cell calcifying Sertoli cell tumors (LCCST), nodular adrenocortical rests, and Leydig cell tumors. Between 20% and 50% of patients with Carney complex will have at least one of the tumors. LCCST, a benign stromal tumor, is a very rare tumor; however, it occurs frequently in male patients with Carney complex. LCCST may be bilateral and multifocal in about 50% of patients. The tumors progress gradually with age to replace the normal testicular tissue. LCCSTs can cause replacement and obstruction of seminiferous tubules, leading to reduced fertility in men. Malignant changes have rarely been described, particularly when the primary tumor is larger than 6 cm in diameter. Nodular adrenocortical rests and Leydig cell tumors are observed less frequently. These 3 types of tumors are frequently asymptomatic. However, precocious puberty or male feminization has rarely been reported. These masses are often asymptomatic and not palpable but have been reported to have sperm abnormalities when associated with Carney complex.[9]

Ovarian tumors: Carney complex can present as ovarian cysts and tumors of the ovarian surface epithelium, including serous cystadenomas and cystic teratomas. Ovarian lesions were described at autopsy in about 60% of the patients, which can occasionally progress to ovarian carcinoma (mucinous adenocarcinoma or endometrioid carcinoma) and is usually seen during the fifth decade of life.

Non-Endocrine Manifestations

Cardiac myxomas

These are benign neoplasms with an equal distribution among all ages and genders. They are found in about 20% to 40% of patients with Carney complex. These myxomas can be located within any chamber of the heart, can be multiple, and require surgical removal. They can cause stroke due to embolism and cardiac deficiency. However, they often recur despite seemingly adequate excision, thus rendering surgical cure problematic. These tumors are the most frequent cause of death in Carney complex patients, either related to the tumors themselves, surgical complications occurring during removal, or embolic stroke. Cardiac myxomas may also be responsible for the high rate of sudden death reported in patients with Carney complex.[7]


The 3 most common skin manifestations occur frequently and are seen at young ages in patients with Carney complex. These are lentiginosis, blue nevi, and cutaneous myxoma. 

Lentiginosis is seen in about 50% to 80% of patients with Carney complex. Lentigines are typically flat, poorly circumscribed, brownish to black macules located around the lips, eyelids, ears, and genital area. They usually are small (<5 mm) and do not change with sun exposure. The density of pigmented spots can vary from a few lesions to profuse pigmentation. These can be present at birth and often appear during childhood and the prepubertal period. Lentigines usually do not acquire their typical intensity and distribution until early adolescence. Carney complex lentigines are challenging to distinguish from solar lentigines. However, in contrast to age-related skin lesions, Carney complex-associated lentigines tend to fade with age.

Blue nevi are, after lentigines, the second most frequent skin lesions in patients with Carney complex. They are seen in about 40% of patients. They are bluish-black-colored marks with an ovoid or star-shaped appearance with variable distribution.

Cutaneous myxoma is the third most common skin manifestation of Carney complex, reported in 20% to 55% of patients. They typically appear before the age of 18 and tend to recur. The lesions vary with asymptomatic, sessile, small (rarely exceeding 1 cm in diameter), opalescent, or dark pink papules, and they can have large, finger-like, pedunculated lesions. They can occur anywhere but usually affect the eyelids, ears, nipples, external ear canal, trunk, and perineum. Myxoma is the most specific dermatological criterion for the Carney complex diagnosis. These can be used for the early detection of the disease and, thus, prevent life-threatening complications of Carney complex related to heart myxomas and endocrine abnormalities.

Café-au-lait spots or other birthmarks (depigmented lesions) are also seen in Carney complex patients and are usually present at birth. The molecular causes underlying the formation of pigmented skin lesions in Carney complex are not fully understood.

Breast lesions

Lesions include lobular or nodular myxomatosis, myxoid fibroadenomas, or ductal adenomas. They are often bilateral and occur in 20% of the female patients.

Melanotic schwannoma

These are usually seen in 5% to 10% of patients and can be mistaken for malignant melanomas, which demonstrate spindle cell morphology but exhibit clinical characteristics of schwannomas. They usually present with frequent calcifications and multicentricity. They can be observed anywhere, but their most frequent site is the gastrointestinal tract (esophagus, stomach, and rectum) and the paraspinal sympathetic chain. Malignancy may be observed in 10% of the cases with frequent metastasis to the lung, liver, or brain.


These are reported early in life, usually before age 2, when sporadic bone tumors are rare. Clinically, the tumors are painless masses found in distal long bones (diaphyseal) and small flat bones (nasal). Osteochondromyxomas are usually benign, but local invasiveness has also been seen.

Other Lesions

Other lesions can be associated with Carney complex but are less frequent. Some of these are hepatocellular carcinoma, intraductal papillary mucinous tumor of the pancreas, and multiple fusiform myxomatous cerebral aneurysms.


Once the diagnosis is made, the patient requires life-long surveillance. Clinical workup for all the manifestations of the Carney complex should be conducted at least once a year in all patients. These workups should start in infancy for some manifestations.[10]

Adrenal: Urinary cortisol usually increases but can be variable. The dexamethasone suppression test fails to suppress cortisol secretion even after high doses. Most patients respond to dexamethasone with a contradictory rise in cortisol production. The dexamethasone suppression test may be used diagnostically to identify PPNAD, even in patients that have normal baseline cortisol levels and do not have clinical stigmata of Cushing syndrome. Plasma ACTH levels are usually low, and adrenal glands appear normal on CT scans in one-third of the patients, whereas the other patients present with micronodules (generally less than 6 mm) or, rarely, macronodules larger than 10 mm. Pathology reports usually show that the adrenal glands are normal in size and weight and are peppered with black or brown nodules set in a cortex, which is often atrophic.

Pituitary: Biochemical abnormalities of the GH axis are present in up to 80% of the patients. These biochemical abnormalities develop before radiological evidence of a frank pituitary tumor. They might be secondary to hyperplasia of GH cells, characterized by the pathological examination of poorly delineated regions with increased cellularity. Most remaining patients have abnormal responses to oral glucose tolerant test but normal pituitary imaging. Follow-up on these patients should include magnetic resonance imaging and an oral glucose tolerance test. If a tumor develops, it is treated surgically, whereas if IGF-1 levels increase without a visible tumor, somatostatin analogs or GH receptor antagonist treatment can be used.

Thyroid: Around 75% of patients are found to have cystic or multinodular disease. An annual clinical examination with a thyroid ultrasound is recommended in postpubertal pediatric and adult patients. Fine-needle investigation of the thyroid nodule helps with the diagnosis.

Gonadal: Sonographic evaluation of the testes and ovaries often shows microcalcifications and hypoechogenic lesions. Suspicious or large lesions should be monitored for possible malignancy, especially LCCST larger than 6 cm.

Cardiac myxoma: Early diagnosis of these tumors is important and should start within the first 6 months of life. Annual screening with echocardiogram should follow. Patients with cardiac myxoma should be screened every 6 months. In difficult cases, transesophageal ultrasound and cardiac magnetic resonance imaging can be helpful.

Breast lesions: Regular mammograms show no clear evidence of improved mortality, but breast magnetic resonance imaging is performed in patients with previously diagnosed lesions. Treatment and follow-up are not well standardized.

Treatment / Management

Cushing syndrome due to PPNAD must be treated to control the consequences of cortisol oversecretion. Bilateral adrenalectomy is the most common treatment, although, under certain circumstances, ketoconazole or mitotane have been used as anti-cortisol treatment.

  • Fine-needle aspiration is indicated for patients with thyroid nodules. Patients with lesions suspicious of malignancy should be referred for surgery.
  • Few patients with Carney complex and acromegaly have an aggressively growing tumor that will require surgery with possible radiation treatment. Treatment of acromegaly with somatostatin analogs may also be used either as a primary treatment or as an adjuvant to trans-sphenoidal surgery.
  • LCCSCTs, especially when bilateral, are benign and require imaging surveillance alone. If measures of tumor markers or imaging features indicate a suspicion of malignancy, then testicle-sparing surgery may be considered for small tumors to allow for histopathologic examination. There are a few reports of prepubertal boys with LCCSCT treated with aromatase inhibitors.
  • Malignant LCCSCTs usually occur in older patients and in those who have unilateral and unifocal disease. Orchiectomy is the treatment of choice for malignant LCCSCTs.
  • Surgical resection is the treatment of choice for cardiac myxomas. They often recur in affected patients, so follow-up monitoring is required.
  • Psammomatous melanotic schwannomas are treated with complete surgical resection with tumor-free margins. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be required for malignant tumors.

Differential Diagnosis

The differential diagnosis included Cushing disease, adrenal carcinoma, adrenal incidentaloma, breast cancer, intracardiac thrombus, lentigo, melanotic nevi, primary cardiac neoplasms, and rhabdomyoma.


The most significant risk of mortality in Carney complex is associated with cardiac disease (57%), specifically cardiac myxomas and complications of cardiac surgery. Other significant causes of mortality include metastatic or intracranial psammomatous melanotic schwannoma (14%), carcinoma or metastatic tumor (14%), and noncardiac postoperative complications (12%).


The most significant complication of Carney complex is the mortality associated with cardiac myxomas, psammomatous melanotic schwannoma, and carcinomas or metastatic disease. These are especially common when part of the multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN) syndrome. Treatment often involves adrenalectomy, leaving patients with lifelong dependence on exogenous steroid replacement and the risks of hypocortisolism. 

Deterrence and Patient Education

Counseling regarding the potential risks for the offspring with or at risk for Carney complex should be offered to adults and children before they reach childbearing age. The availability of prenatal and preimplantation genetic diagnosis should also be discussed. Genetic testing for mutations in the protein kinase A type I-alpha regulatory subunit (PRKAR1A) is indicated for other potentially affected family members of patients with Carney complex. However, clinical surveillance is advisable for at-risk family members even when a PKAR1A pathogenic variant is not identified.

Patients should be educated about the nature of their disease and concerning symptoms such as signs of cardiac embolism and tumor formation. Ongoing monitoring is crucial in decreasing the complications of Carney complex. 

Pearls and Other Issues

Key facts to keep in mind regarding Carney complex are as follows:

  • When neither parent of an individual with Carney complex has the pathogenic gene variant or any clinical features of Carney complex, the affected patient likely has a de novo mutation.
  • Carney complex is diagnosed by either of the following: 1) spotty skin pigmentation (lentigines, blue nevi), endocrine tumors (PPNAD, GH, thyroid nodules), myxomas (cardiac, breast, skin), and nonendocrine tumors (psammomatous melanotic schwannomas, ovarian cysts, LCCSC) or 2) one of the above criteria plus the presence of or first-degree relative with the PKAR1A mutation. Cushing syndrome is the most common clinical manifestation of Carney complex and requires lifelong treatment to avoid the complications of hypercortisolism. 
  • Mortality is related primarily to cardiac myxomas, psammomatous melanotic schwannomas, carcinomas, and metastatic tumors.
  • Treatment is usually adrenalectomy but can sometimes be treated medically with ketoconazole or mitotane. 

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

Patients with Carney complex are at high risk for hypercortisolism. Early identification and management of these patients is imperative in reducing morbidity and mortality. The care of patients with Carney complex necessitates a collaborative approach among healthcare professionals to ensure patient-centered care and improve overall outcomes. This condition is best managed by an interprofessional team, including a cardiologist, cardiac surgeon, endocrinologist, internist, dermatologist, ophthalmologist, and an oncologist. The primary care provider and nurse practitioner should refer these patients or parents to a geneticist for counseling regarding the potential risks for the offspring. The availability of prenatal and preimplantation genetic diagnosis should also be discussed. This includes expertise in recognizing the varied clinical presentations across different organ systems. Interprofessional teams have been shown to improve the early detection of Carney complex. Patient and caregiver education about endocrine and cardiac complications is crucial.

A strategic approach involving evidence-based strategies to optimize treatment plans and minimize adverse effects is equally crucial. Ethical considerations must guide decision-making, ensuring informed consent and respecting patient autonomy in treatment choices. Each healthcare professional must know their responsibilities and contribute their unique expertise to the patient's care plan, fostering a multidisciplinary approach. Effective interprofessional communication is paramount, allowing seamless information exchange and collaborative decision-making among the team members. Care coordination plays a pivotal role in ensuring that the patient's journey from diagnosis to treatment and follow-up is well-managed, minimizing errors and enhancing patient safety. By embracing these principles of skill, strategy, ethics, responsibilities, interprofessional communication, and care coordination, healthcare professionals can deliver patient-centered care, ultimately improving patient outcomes and enhancing team performance in the management of Carney complex.



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