Tay-Sachs is a rare
disease that is passed down through some families. A person with Tay-Sachs has changed (mutated) genes that don't make any or enough of an enzyme called hexosaminidase A (hex A). Hex A breaks down fatty compounds. Without it, fatty compounds build up in the nerve cells of the brain and cause damage.
There are two forms of Tay-Sachs:
Tay-Sachs can occur
when parents pass on a changed gene to their child.
In late-onset Tay-Sachs (LOTS), the body
makes a small amount of hex A. People with LOTS inherit the late-onset hex A
gene change from one or both parents.
The changed gene that causes Tay-Sachs disease is more commonly found in people of Ashkenazi Jewish
descent. About 1 out of 30 people in this population is a carrier of the
disease.1 People of
French-Canadian descent from the East Saint Lawrence River Valley of Quebec and
people of Cajun descent in Louisiana are also more likely than others to carry the changed gene.
A child with Tay-Sachs
disease looks healthy at birth. But when the child is:
Children with Tay-Sachs rarely live beyond 4 years of age.
In late-onset Tay-Sachs (LOTS), early symptoms such as
clumsiness or mood changes may be minor or seem "normal" and go unnoticed.
Later symptoms may include muscle weakness and twitching, slurred speech, and
trouble thinking and reasoning. The symptoms depend on how much hex A the body
If you or your
doctor thinks that your child has Tay-Sachs disease, your doctor will do a physical
exam and a blood test to check the level of hex A. A genetic test may be needed
to be sure the disease is Tay-Sachs.
The focus of treatment for
Tay-Sachs disease is to control symptoms and make your child as comfortable as
possible. There is no cure. It may be helpful to seek counseling or find
support from others who are going through the same thing you are.
If you have late-onset Tay-Sachs disease (LOTS), treatment also
focuses on controlling symptoms. The treatment you receive, such as medicine
depression, depends on the symptoms you have.
It may be overwhelming to learn that your child has Tay-Sachs. It's
important that you care for yourself as well as your child. Talk to your doctor
As the disease gets worse, your child will need more care.
Encourage your child to be as active as possible for as long as possible. Give
your child your love and affection.
You may not be able to care
for your child without help. Talk with your doctor about groups that can help
are thinking about having a child, the American College of Obstetricians and
Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that:2
Carriers of the Tay-Sachs
gene changes can pass the changed gene to their children even if the carriers don't have the
disease. If both you and your partner are carriers, there is a 1-out-of-4 chance
(25%) that any child you have will have Tay-Sachs disease.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Learning about Tay-Sachs disease:
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and
Stroke (NINDS), a part of the National Institutes of Health, is the leading
U.S. federal government agency supporting research on brain and nervous system
disorders. It provides the public with educational materials and information
about these disorders.
This organization provides public and professional
education about Jewish genetic disorders. It also promotes screening and
prevention programs, information, and referrals.
This website is sponsored by the Nemours Foundation. It
has a wide range of information about children's health—from allergies and
diseases to normal growth and development (birth to adolescence). This website
offers separate areas for kids, teens, and parents, each providing
age-appropriate information that the child or parent can understand. You can
sign up to get weekly emails about your area of interest.
The March of Dimes tries to improve the health of babies
by preventing birth defects, premature birth, and early death. March of Dimes
supports research, community services, education, and advocacy to save babies'
lives. The organization's website has information on premature birth, birth
defects, birth defects testing, pregnancy, and prenatal care.
NTSAD is a nonprofit, volunteer health agency devoted to
the treatment and prevention of Tay-Sachs and other genetic conditions. Its Web
site has information about genetic diseases, carrier testing, genetic
counseling, and more. NTSAD has a support group for families and individuals
affected by genetic diseases.
Committee on Genetics, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2009). Preconception and prenatal carrier screening for genetic diseases in individuals of Eastern European Jewish descent. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 114(4): 950–953.
Committee on Genetics, American College of
Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2005, reaffirmed 2010). Screening for
Tay-Sachs disease. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 106(4):
Other Works Consulted
Haslam RHA (2006). Degenerative diseases of the
central nervous system. In FD Burg et al., eds., Current Pediatric Therapy, 18th ed., pp. 388–392. Philadelphia: Saunders
Neudorfer O, Kolodny EH (2004). Late-onset Tay-Sachs
disease. Israel Medical Association Journal, 6:
Ropper AH, Samuels MA (2009). Inherited metabolic diseases of the nervous system. In Adams and Victor's Principles of Neurology, 9th ed., pp. 904–959. New York: McGraw-Hill.
June 20, 2013
Sarah Marshall, MD - Family Medicine
& Siobhan M. Dolan, MD, MPH - Reproductive Genetics
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