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Genetics Home Reference: your guide to understanding genetic conditions
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Tay-Sachs disease

Reviewed October 2012

What is Tay-Sachs disease?

Tay-Sachs disease is a rare inherited disorder that progressively destroys nerve cells (neurons) in the brain and spinal cord.

The most common form of Tay-Sachs disease becomes apparent in infancy. Infants with this disorder typically appear normal until the age of 3 to 6 months, when their development slows and muscles used for movement weaken. Affected infants lose motor skills such as turning over, sitting, and crawling. They also develop an exaggerated startle reaction to loud noises. As the disease progresses, children with Tay-Sachs disease experience seizures, vision and hearing loss, intellectual disability, and paralysis. An eye abnormality called a cherry-red spot, which can be identified with an eye examination, is characteristic of this disorder. Children with this severe infantile form of Tay-Sachs disease usually live only into early childhood.

Other forms of Tay-Sachs disease are very rare. Signs and symptoms can appear in childhood, adolescence, or adulthood and are usually milder than those seen with the infantile form. Characteristic features include muscle weakness, loss of muscle coordination (ataxia) and other problems with movement, speech problems, and mental illness. These signs and symptoms vary widely among people with late-onset forms of Tay-Sachs disease.

How common is Tay-Sachs disease?

Tay-Sachs disease is very rare in the general population. The genetic mutations that cause this disease are more common in people of Ashkenazi (eastern and central European) Jewish heritage than in those with other backgrounds. The mutations responsible for this disease are also more common in certain French-Canadian communities of Quebec, the Old Order Amish community in Pennsylvania, and the Cajun population of Louisiana.

What genes are related to Tay-Sachs disease?

Mutations in the HEXA gene cause Tay-Sachs disease. The HEXA gene provides instructions for making part of an enzyme called beta-hexosaminidase A, which plays a critical role in the brain and spinal cord. This enzyme is located in lysosomes, which are structures in cells that break down toxic substances and act as recycling centers. Within lysosomes, beta-hexosaminidase A helps break down a fatty substance called GM2 ganglioside.

Mutations in the HEXA gene disrupt the activity of beta-hexosaminidase A, which prevents the enzyme from breaking down GM2 ganglioside. As a result, this substance accumulates to toxic levels, particularly in neurons in the brain and spinal cord. Progressive damage caused by the buildup of GM2 ganglioside leads to the destruction of these neurons, which causes the signs and symptoms of Tay-Sachs disease.

Because Tay-Sachs disease impairs the function of a lysosomal enzyme and involves the buildup of GM2 ganglioside, this condition is sometimes referred to as a lysosomal storage disorder or a GM2-gangliosidosis.

Related Gene(s)

Changes in this gene are associated with Tay-Sachs disease.

  • HEXA

How do people inherit Tay-Sachs disease?

This condition is inherited in an autosomal recessive pattern, which means both copies of the gene in each cell have mutations. The parents of an individual with an autosomal recessive condition each carry one copy of the mutated gene, but they typically do not show signs and symptoms of the condition.

Where can I find information about diagnosis or management of Tay-Sachs disease?

These resources address the diagnosis or management of Tay-Sachs disease and may include treatment providers.

  • Gene Review: Hexosaminidase A Deficiency (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK1218/)
  • Genetic Testing Registry: Tay-Sachs disease (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/gtr/conditions/C0039373)
  • MedlinePlus Encyclopedia: Tay-Sachs Disease (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001417.htm)

You might also find information on the diagnosis or management of Tay-Sachs disease in Educational resources (http://www.ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/tay-sachs-disease/show/Educational+resources) and Patient support (http://www.ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/tay-sachs-disease/show/Patient+support).

General information about the diagnosis (http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/handbook/consult/diagnosis) and management (http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/handbook/consult/treatment) of genetic conditions is available in the Handbook. Read more about genetic testing (http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/handbook/testing), particularly the difference between clinical tests and research tests (http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/handbook/testing/researchtesting).

To locate a healthcare provider, see How can I find a genetics professional in my area? (http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/handbook/consult/findingprofessional) in the Handbook.

Where can I find additional information about Tay-Sachs disease?

You may find the following resources about Tay-Sachs disease helpful. These materials are written for the general public.

You may also be interested in these resources, which are designed for healthcare professionals and researchers.

What other names do people use for Tay-Sachs disease?

  • B variant GM2 gangliosidosis
  • GM2 gangliosidosis, type 1
  • HexA deficiency
  • Hexosaminidase A deficiency
  • Hexosaminidase alpha-subunit deficiency (variant B)
  • Sphingolipidosis, Tay-Sachs
  • TSD

For more information about naming genetic conditions, see the Genetics Home Reference Condition Naming Guidelines (http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/ConditionNameGuide) and How are genetic conditions and genes named? (http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/handbook/mutationsanddisorders/naming) in the Handbook.

What if I still have specific questions about Tay-Sachs disease?

Ask the Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (http://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/GARD/).

What glossary definitions help with understanding Tay-Sachs disease?

ataxia ; autosomal ; autosomal recessive ; cell ; deficiency ; enzyme ; gene ; lipid ; mental illness ; motor ; population ; recessive ; subunit ; toxic

You may find definitions for these and many other terms in the Genetics Home Reference Glossary (http://www.ghr.nlm.nih.gov/glossary).

References

  • Chavany C, Jendoubi M. Biology and potential strategies for the treatment of GM2 gangliosidoses. Mol Med Today. 1998 Apr;4(4):158-65. Review. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9572057?dopt=Abstract)
  • Fernandes Filho JA, Shapiro BE. Tay-Sachs disease. Arch Neurol. 2004 Sep;61(9):1466-8. Review. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15364698?dopt=Abstract)
  • Gene Review: Hexosaminidase A Deficiency (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK1218/)
  • Maegawa GH, Stockley T, Tropak M, Banwell B, Blaser S, Kok F, Giugliani R, Mahuran D, Clarke JT. The natural history of juvenile or subacute GM2 gangliosidosis: 21 new cases and literature review of 134 previously reported. Pediatrics. 2006 Nov;118(5):e1550-62. Epub 2006 Oct 2. Review. Erratum in: Pediatrics. 2007 Oct;120(4):936. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17015493?dopt=Abstract)
  • Mahuran DJ. Biochemical consequences of mutations causing the GM2 gangliosidoses. Biochim Biophys Acta. 1999 Oct 8;1455(2-3):105-38. Review. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10571007?dopt=Abstract)
  • Montalvo AL, Filocamo M, Vlahovicek K, Dardis A, Lualdi S, Corsolini F, Bembi B, Pittis MG. Molecular analysis of the HEXA gene in Italian patients with infantile and late onset Tay-Sachs disease: detection of fourteen novel alleles. Hum Mutat. 2005 Sep;26(3):282. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16088929?dopt=Abstract)
  • Neudorfer O, Pastores GM, Zeng BJ, Gianutsos J, Zaroff CM, Kolodny EH. Late-onset Tay-Sachs disease: phenotypic characterization and genotypic correlations in 21 affected patients. Genet Med. 2005 Feb;7(2):119-23. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15714079?dopt=Abstract)

 

The resources on this site should not be used as a substitute for professional medical care or advice. Users seeking information about a personal genetic disease, syndrome, or condition should consult with a qualified healthcare professional. See How can I find a genetics professional in my area? (http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/handbook/consult/findingprofessional) in the Handbook.

 
Reviewed: October 2012
Published: April 17, 2014