Ataxia-telangiectasia (A-T) is a rare, genetic neurological disorder that progressively affects various systems in the body. Children affected with A-T appear normal at birth; however, the first signs of the disease—usually a lack of balance and slurred speech—often appear between one and two years of age.
The onset of cerebellar ataxia (unsteadiness and lack of coordination) marks the beginning of progressive degeneration of the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for motor control (movement). This degeneration gradually leads to a general lack of muscle control, and eventually confines the patient to a wheelchair. Children with A-T become unable to feed or dress themselves without assistance. Because of the worsening ataxia, children with A-T lose their ability to write, and speech also becomes slowed and slurred. Even reading eventually becomes impossible, as eye movements become difficult to control.
Soon after the onset of the ataxia, an individual usually exhibits another symptom of the disease: telangiectases, or tiny red spider veins (dilated blood vessels). These telangiectases appear in the corners of the eyes—giving the eyes a blood-shot appearance—or on the surfaces of the ears and cheeks exposed to sunlight.
In about 70% of children with A-T, another symptom of the disease is present: an immune system deficiency that usually leads to recurrent respiratory infections. In many patients, these infections can become life threatening. Due to deficient levels of IgA and IgE immunoglobulins—the natural infection-fighting agents in the
Children with A-T tend to develop malignancies of the blood circulatory system almost 1,000 times more frequently than the general population. Lymphomas (malignant tumors of lymphoid tissues) and leukemias (abnormal overgrowth of white blood cells, causing tumor cells to grow) are particularly common types of cancer, although the risk of developing most types of cancer is high in those with A-T. Another characteristic of the disease is an increased sensitivity to ionizing radiation (high-energy radiation such as x rays), which means that patients with A-T frequently cannot tolerate the radiation treatments often given to cancer patients.
Ataxia-telangiectasia is called a recessive genetic disorder because parents do not exhibit symptoms; however, each parent carries a recessive (unexpressed) gene that may cause A-T in offspring. The genetic path of A-T is therefore impossible to predict. The recessive gene may lie dormant for generations until two people with the defective gene have children. When two such A-T carriers have a child together, there is a 1-in-4 chance (25% risk) of having a child with A-T. Every healthy sibling of a child with A-T has a 2-in-3 chance (66% risk) of being a carrier, like his or her parents.
The A-T gene (called ATM, or A-T Mutated) was discovered by Tel Aviv researchers in 1995. The ATM protein is thought to prevent damaged DNA from being reproduced. However, the cells of patients with A-T lack the ATM protein, although the cells of those with the mild form of the disorder contain small amounts of it. It is thought that ATM is involved in sending messages to several other regulating proteins in the body. The absence of ATM severely disrupts the transmission of these messages, thereby affecting many different systems of the body.
Scientists have found that the ATM gene is often found with the p53 gene, which is defective in the majority of cancerous tumors. Tumor biologists, therefore, view A-T as one of the most explicit human models for studying inherited cancer susceptibility. In children who have A-T, the defective A-T gene blocks the normal development of the thymus, the organ most important for the development of the immune response. Understanding how immunodeficiencies develop in children with A-T may have relevance to research on other immunodeficiency disorders.
Both males and females are equally affected by A-T. Epidemiologists estimate the frequency of A-T as between 1/40,000 and 1/100,000 live births. However, it is believed that many children with A-T, particularly those who die at a young age, are never properly diagnosed. Thus, the disease may occur much more often than reported.
It is also estimated that about 1% (2.5 million) of the American population carry a copy of the defective A-T gene. According to some researchers, these gene carriers may also have an increased sensitivity to ionizing radiation and have a significantly higher risk of developing cancer—particularly breast cancer in female carriers.
Signs and symptoms
Although there is much variability in A-T symptoms among patients, the signs of A-T almost always include the appearance of ataxia between the ages of two and
Neurological symptoms of A-T include:
- Progressive cerebellar ataxia (although ataxia may appear static between the ages of two and five)
- Cerebellar dysarthria (slurred speech)
- Difficulty swallowing, causing choking and drooling
- Progressive apraxia (lack of control) of eye movements
- Muscle weakness and poor reflexes
- Initially normal intelligence, sometimes with later regression to mildly retarded range
Cutaneous symptoms include:
- Progressive telangiectases of the eye and skin develop between two to ten years of age
- Atopic dermatitis (itchy skin)
- Café au lait spots (pale brown areas of skin)
- Cutaneous atrophy (wasting away)
- Hypo- and hyperpigmentation (underpigmented and overpigmented areas of skin)
- Loss of skin elasticity
- Nummular eczema (coin-shaped inflammatory skin condition)
Other manifestations of A-T include:
- Susceptibility to neoplasms (tumors or growths)
- Endocrine abnormalities
- Tendency to develop insulin-resistant diabetes in adolescence
- Recurrent sinopulmonary infection (involving the sinuses and the airways of the lungs)
- Characteristic loss of facial muscle tone
- Absence or dysplasia (abnormal development of tissue) of thymus gland
- Jerky, involuntary movements
- Slowed growth
- Prematurely graying hair
For a doctor who is familiar with A-T, the diagnosis can usually be made on purely clinical grounds and often on inspection. But because most physicians have never seen a case of A-T, misdiagnoses are likely to occur. For example, physicians examining ataxic children frequently rule out A-T if telangiectases are not observed. However, telangiectases often do not appear until the age of six, and sometimes appear at a much older age. In addition, a history of recurrent sinopulmonary infections might increase suspicion of A-T, but about 30% of patients with A-T exhibit no immune system deficiencies.
The most common early misdiagnosis is that of static encephalopathy—a brain dysfunction, or ataxic cerebral palsy—paralysis due to a birth defect. Ataxia involving the trunk and gait is almost always the presenting symptom of A-T. And although this ataxia is slowly and steadily progressive, it may be compensated for—and masked—by the normal development of motor skills between the ages of two and five. Thus, until the progression of the disease becomes apparent, clinical diagnosis may be imprecise or inaccurate unless the patient has an affected sibling.
Once disease progression becomes apparent, Friedreich ataxia (a degenerative disease of the spinal cord) becomes the most common misdiagnosis. However, Friedreich ataxia usually has a later onset. In addition, the spinal signs involving posterior and lateral columns along the positive Romberg's sign (inability to maintain balance when the eyes are shut and feet are close together) distinguish this type of spinal ataxia from the cerebellar ataxia of A-T.
Distinguishing A-T from other disorders (differential diagnosis) is ultimately made on the basis of laboratory tests. The most consistent laboratory marker of A-T is an elevated level of serum alpha-fetoprotein (a protein that stimulates the production of antibodies) after the age of two years. Prenatal diagnosis is possible through the measurement of alpha-fetoprotein levels in amniotic fluid and the documentation of increased spontaneous chromosomal breakage of amniotic cell DNA. Diagnostic support may also be offered by a finding of low serum IgA, IgG and/or IgE. However, these immune system findings vary from patient to patient and are not abnormal in all individuals.
The presence of spontaneous chromosome breaks and rearrangements in lymphocytes in vitro (test tube) and in cultured skin fibroblasts (cells from which connective tissue is made) is also an important laboratory marker of A-T. And finally, reduced survival of lymphocyte (cells present in the blood and lymphatic tissues) and fibroblast cultures, after exposure to ionizing radiation, will confirm a diagnosis of A-T, although this technique is performed in specialized laboratories and is not routinely available to physicians.
When the mutated A-T gene (ATM) has been identified by researchers, it is possible to confirm a diagnosis by screening the patient's DNA for mutations. However,
Treatment and management
There is no specific treatment for A-T because gene therapy has not become an option as of year 2000. Also, the disease is usually not diagnosed until the individual has developed health problems. Treatment is therefore focused on the observed conditions, especially if neoplams are present. However, radiation therapy must be minimized to avoid inducing further chromosomal damage and tumor growth.
Supportive therapy is available to reduce the symptoms of drooling, twitching, and ataxia, but individual responses to specific medications vary. The use of sunscreens to retard skin changes due to premature aging can be helpful. In addition, early use of pulmonary physiotherapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy is also important to minimize muscle contractures (shortening or tightening of muscles).
A-T is an incurable disease. Most children with A-T depend on wheelchairs by the age of ten because of a lack of muscle control. Children with A-T usually die from respiratory failure or cancer by their teens or early 20s. However, some patients with A-T may live into their 40s, although they are extremely rare.
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A-T Children's Project. 668 South Military Trail, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442. (800) 5-HELP-A-T. <http://www.atcp.org>.
A-T Medical Research Foundation. 5241 Round Meadow Rd., Hidden Hills, CA 91302. <http://pathnet.medsch.ucla.edu/people/faculty/gatti/gatsign.htm>.
National Ataxia Foundation. 2600 Fernbrook Lane, Suite 119, Minneapolis, MN 55447. (763) 553-0020. Fax: (763) 553-0167. email@example.com. <http://www.ataxia.org>.
National Organization to Treat A-T. 4316 Ramsey Ave., Austin, TX 78756-3207. (877) TREAT-AT. <http://www.treat-at.org>.
Genevieve T. Slomski, PhD