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Huntington’s Disease

What is Huntington’s Disease?

Huntington’s Disease is a rare progressive brain disorder that results in movement, cognitive, and psychiatric symptoms. Nerve cells in the brain gradually break down, leading to a decline in ability. The inherited condition has no cure, but some symptoms can be managed with medication, physical therapy, and other types of support. It’s typical for the Huntington’s Disease to run a 10- to 25-year progressive course, with patients facing life-threatening injuries from falls or infections, such as pneumonia, as their physical and mental state weakens.

It is a rare condition that about 30,000 people in the United States have. Music legend Woody Guthrie was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease, and his wife, Marjorie, was instrumental in bringing attention and resources to the condition in the 1960s. Research is ongoing.

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What you can expect at UTHealth Houston Neurosciences

UTHealth Houston Neurosciences brings together a multidisciplinary team of board-certified, fellowship-trained neurologists, researchers, and pain management specialists who work together to help provide relief for even the most complex problems. Your team will share insights, leading to better treatment decisions and outcomes. You will receive expert care, excellent communication, and genuine compassion.

Causes of Huntington’s Disease

Huntington’s Disease is caused by a mutation in a gene in the short arm of chromosome 4. The mistake involves abnormally long repeats of coded instructions in the gene. When a parent carries this defective gene, their child has a 50% chance of inheriting it and developing the disease. Carriers of the gene are advised to seek genetic counseling before having children.

Symptoms of Huntington’s Disease

Even though patients are born with the condition, symptoms are usually first noticed between the ages of 30 and 50. In the juvenile variation, symptoms appear earlier, and the progression tends to be faster. Juvenile patients may experience attention difficulties, behavior problems, and a rapid decline in school performance.

Initial symptoms seem to vary greatly among adult patients, but a loss of coordination and personality changes are typical at the onset. Other early symptoms may include clumsiness, insomnia, fatigue, memory lapses, and trouble making decisions or learning new things.

Movement symptoms are common, including involuntary jerks, ticks, an impaired gait, and speech difficulties. Symptoms typically worsen to interfere with day-to-day life. Patients might start to fall, have difficulty swallowing or have trouble walking. Confusion, memory loss, and weight loss are also common. Sometimes, patients develop bipolar or obsessive-compulsive disorders. In late stages, patients often cannot walk or speak.

Diagnosis of Huntington’s Disease

A simple blood test can detect Huntington’s Disease. If the disease is confirmed, a neurologist will conduct additional tests, such as an MRI and CT scan. Your doctor will also discuss your family history, complete a medical background and conduct a physical exam.

Treatment for Huntington’s Disease

Because there isn’t yet a cure to stop the decline associated with the disease, the goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms and to maintain a high quality of life for as long as possible. Patients and their families should also prepare for the progressive nature of the disease. Medication, including antipsychotic drugs and antidepressants, might be prescribed to help lessen some symptoms. Occupational and speech therapy will benefit patients, and nutritional support might also be recommended.

As the disease progresses, patients may need full-time care. Our team will be here to help develop a support plan. In addition, clinical trials and gene therapy research is underway.

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