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Reviewed January 2009
What is transthyretin amyloidosis?
Transthyretin amyloidosis is a slowly progressive condition characterized by the buildup of abnormal deposits of a protein called amyloid (amyloidosis) in the body's organs and tissues. These protein deposits most frequently occur in the peripheral nervous system, which is made up of nerves connecting the brain and spinal cord to muscles and sensory cells that detect sensations such as touch, pain, heat, and sound. Protein deposits in these nerves result in a loss of sensation in the extremities (peripheral neuropathy). The autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary body functions such as blood pressure, heart rate, and digestion, may also be affected by amyloidosis. In some cases, the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system) are affected. Other areas of amyloidosis include the heart, kidneys, eyes, and gastrointestinal tract. The age at which symptoms begin to develop varies widely among individuals with this condition, and is typically between ages 20 and 70.
There are three major forms of transthyretin amyloidosis, which are distinguished by their symptoms and the body systems they affect.
The neuropathic form of transthyretin amyloidosis primarily affects the peripheral and autonomic nervous systems, resulting in peripheral neuropathy and difficulty controlling bodily functions. Impairments in bodily functions can include sexual impotence, diarrhea, constipation, problems with urination, and a sharp drop in blood pressure upon standing (orthostatic hypotension). Some people experience heart and kidney problems as well. Various eye problems may occur, such as cloudiness of the clear gel that fills the eyeball (vitreous opacity), dry eyes, increased pressure in the eyes (glaucoma), or pupils with an irregular or "scalloped" appearance. Some people with this form of transthyretin amyloidosis develop carpal tunnel syndrome, which is characterized by numbness, tingling, and weakness in the hands and fingers.
The leptomeningeal form of transthyretin amyloidosis primarily affects the central nervous system. In people with this form, amyloidosis occurs in the leptomeninges, which are two thin layers of tissue that cover the brain and spinal cord. A buildup of protein in this tissue can cause stroke and bleeding in the brain, an accumulation of fluid in the brain (hydrocephalus), difficulty coordinating movements (ataxia), muscle stiffness and weakness (spastic paralysis), seizures, and loss of intellectual function (dementia). Eye problems similar to those in the neuropathic form may also occur. When people with leptomeningeal transthyretin amyloidosis have associated eye problems, they are said to have the oculoleptomeningeal form.
The cardiac form of transthyretin amyloidosis affects the heart. People with cardiac amyloidosis may have an abnormal heartbeat (arrhythmia), an enlarged heart (cardiomegaly), or orthostatic hypertension. These abnormalities can lead to progressive heart failure and death. Occasionally, people with the cardiac form of transthyretin amyloidosis have mild peripheral neuropathy.
How common is transthyretin amyloidosis?
The exact incidence of transthyretin amyloidosis is unknown. In northern Portugal, the incidence of this condition is thought to be one in 538 people. Transthyretin amyloidosis is less common among Americans of European descent, where it is estimated to affect one in 100,000 people. The cardiac form of transthyretin amyloidosis is more common among people with African ancestry. It is estimated that this form affects between 3 percent and 3.9 percent of African-Americans and approximately 5 percent of people in some areas of West Africa.
What genes are related to transthyretin amyloidosis?
Mutations in the TTR gene cause transthyretin amyloidosis. The TTR gene provides instructions for producing a protein called transthyretin. Transthyretin transports vitamin A (retinol) and a hormone called thyroxine throughout the body. To transport retinol and thyroxine, four transthyretin proteins must be attached (bound) to each other to form a four-protein unit (tetramer). Transthyretin is produced primarily in the liver. A small amount of this protein is produced in an area of the brain called the choroid plexus and in the light-sensitive tissue that lines the back of the eye (the retina).
TTR gene mutations are thought to alter the structure of transthyretin, impairing its ability to bind to other transthyretin proteins and altering its normal function.
Read more about the TTR gene.
How do people inherit transthyretin amyloidosis?
This condition is inherited in an autosomal dominant pattern, which means one copy of the altered gene in each cell is sufficient to cause the disorder.
In most cases, an affected person inherits the mutation from one affected parent. Rarely, cases result from new mutations in the gene and occur in people with no history of the disorder in their family. Not all people who have a TTR gene mutation will develop transthyretin amyloidosis.
Where can I find information about diagnosis or management of transthyretin amyloidosis?
These resources address the diagnosis or management of transthyretin amyloidosis and may include treatment providers.
General information about the diagnosis and management of genetic conditions is available in the Handbook. Read more about genetic testing, particularly the difference between clinical tests and research tests.
To locate a healthcare provider, see How can I find a genetics professional in my area? in the Handbook.
Where can I find additional information about transthyretin amyloidosis?
You may find the following resources about transthyretin amyloidosis 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 transthyretin amyloidosis?
What if I still have specific questions about transthyretin amyloidosis?
Where can I find general information about genetic conditions?
The Handbook provides basic information about genetics in clear language.
These links provide additional genetics resources that may be useful.
What glossary definitions help with understanding transthyretin amyloidosis?
amyloid ; amyloidosis ; arrhythmia ; ataxia ; autonomic nervous system ; autosomal ; autosomal dominant ; cardiac ; carpal tunnel syndrome ; cell ; central nervous system ; choroid ; choroid plexus ; constipation ; dementia ; digestion ; familial ; gastrointestinal ; gene ; glaucoma ; heart failure ; hormone ; hydrocephalus ; hypertension ; hypotension ; impotence ; incidence ; inherited ; involuntary ; kidney ; mutation ; nervous system ; neuropathy ; orthostatic ; peripheral ; peripheral nervous system ; peripheral neuropathy ; protein ; retina ; sensory cells ; syndrome ; tissue
You may find definitions for these and many other terms in the Genetics Home Reference Glossary.
See also Understanding Medical Terminology.
References (6 links)
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? in the Handbook.