Ataxia-telangiectasia (A-T), also called Louis-Bar syndrome, is a rare, genetic neurological disorder of childhood that progressively destroys part of the motor control area of the brain, leading to a lack of balance and coordination. A-T also affects the immune system and increases the risk of leukemia and lymphoma in affected individuals.
The disorder first appeared in the medical literature in the mid-1920s, but was not named specifically until 1957. The name is a combination of two recognized abnormalities: ataxia (lack of muscle control) and telangiectasia (abnormal dilatation of capillary vessels that often result in tumors and red skin lesions). However, A-T involves more than just the sum of these two findings. Other associated A-T problems include immune system deficiencies, extreme sensitivity to radiation, and blood cancers.
Medical researchers initially suspected that multiple genes (the units responsible for inherited features) were involved. However, in 1995, mutations in a single large gene were identified as causing A-T. Researchers named the gene ATM for A-T, mutated. Subsequent research revealed that ATM has a significant role in regulating cell division. The symptoms associated with A-T reflect the main role of the AT gene, which is to induce several cellular responses to DNA damage, such as preventing damaged DNA from being reproduced. When the AT gene is mutated into ATM, the signaling networks are affected and the cell no longer responds correctly to minimize the damage.
A-T is very rare, but it occurs in every population world wide, with an estimated frequency of between 1/40,000 and 1/100,000 live births. But it is believed that many A-T cases, particularly those who die at a young age, are never properly diagnosed. Therefore, this disease may actually be much more prevalent. According to the A-T Project Foundation, an estimated 1% (2.5million in the United States) of the general population carries defective A-T genes. Carriers of one copy of this gene do not develop A-T, but have a significantly increased risk of cancer. Thismakes the A-T gene one of the most important cancer-related genes identified to date.
The ATM gene is autosomal recessive, meaning the disease occurs only if a defective gene is inherited from both parents. Infants with A-T initially often appear very healthy. At around age two, ataxia and nervous system abnormalities becomes apparent. The root cause of A-T-associated ataxia is cell death in the brain, specifically the large branching cells of the nervous system (Purkinje's cells) which are located in the cerebellum. A toddler becomes clumsy, loses balance easily and lacks muscle control. Speech becomes slurred and more difficult, and the symptoms progressively worsen. Between ages two and eight, telangiectases, or tiny, red "spider" veins, appear on the cheeks and ears and in the eyes.
By age 10-12, children with A-T can no longer control their muscles. Immune system deficiencies become common, and affected individuals are extremely sensitive to radiation. Immune system deficiencies vary between individuals but include lower-than-normal levels of proteins that function as antibodies (immunoglobulins) and white blood cells (blood cells not containing "iron" proteins). The thymus gland, which aids in development of the body's immune system, is either missing or has developed abnormally. Intelligence is normal, but growth may be retarded owing to immune system or hormonal deficiencies. Individuals with A-T are also sometimes afflicted with diabetes, prematurely graying hair, and difficulty swallowing. As the children grow older, the immune system becomes weaker and less capable of fighting infection. In the later stages, recurrent respiratory infections and blood cancers, such as leukemia or lymphoma, are common.
Diagnosis relies on recognizing the hallmarks of A-T: progressive ataxia and telangiectasia. However, this may be difficult as ataxia symptoms do appear prior to telangiectasia symptoms by several years. Other symptoms can vary between individuals; for example, 70% of individuals with A-T have a high incidence of respiratory infection, 30% do not. The identification of the ATM gene raises hopes that screening, and perhaps treatment, may be possible.
There is currently no cure for A-T, and treatment focuses on managing the individual's multiple symptoms. Physical therapy and speech therapy can help the patient adjust to ataxia. Injections of gamma globulin, or extracts of human blood that contain antibodies, are used to strengthen the weakened immune system. High-dose vitamin administrations may also be prescribed. Research continues in many countries to find effective treatments. Individuals and families living with this disorder may benefit from attending support groups.
A-T is a fatal condition. Children with A-T become physically disabled by their early teens and typically die by their early 20s, usually from the associated blood cancers and malignancies. In very rare cases, individuals with A-T may experience slower progression and a slightly longer life span, surviving into their 30s. A-T carriers have a fivefold higher risk than non-carriers of developing certain cancers, especially breast cancer.
Medical researchers are investigating methods for screening individuals who may be carriers of the defective gene. Prenatal testing for A-T is possible but not done routinely, because commercial screening tests have yet to be developed.