Health A-Z

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What Is It?

Tay-Sachs disease is an inherited disease caused by an abnormal gene. People with this abnormal gene do not have an important enzyme called hexosaminidase A (HEXA) that helps to break down a fatty material called ganglioside GM2. This material builds up in the brain, and eventually damages nerve cells and causes neurological problems.

Infants usually begin to show signs of the disease between 3 months and 6 months of age. Children with Tay-Sachs disease can become deaf, blind and paralyzed, and usually die by the age of 5.

Tay-Sachs disease is an autosomal recessive inherited disorder, meaning a child inherits one copy of the abnormal gene from each parent. The parents do not actually have the disease, but carry the Tay-Sachs gene and pass it on to the baby. If both parents have the abnormal Tay-Sachs gene, there is a one-in-four chance that their child will inherit the gene from both of them and have Tay-Sachs disease.

Tay-Sachs disease is most common in Ashkenazi Jews. About one in 30 people with this ancestry carry a copy of the gene. Some non-Jewish groups also have a higher chance of carrying the disease. They include people whose ancestors were French-Canadian, from the Louisiana bayou, or from Amish populations in Pennsylvania.

Three types of related conditions often are included in the definition of Tay-Sachs disease because they affect the same gene.

  • A juvenile form usually appears between ages 2 and 5. The symptoms resemble those of classic Tay-Sachs disease, and death usually occurs by age 15-20. If the symptoms appear after age 5, the symptoms may be milder.

  • An adult form, called late-onset Tay-Sachs, or LOTS, resembles the chronic form but first appears much later in life, between the teens and the 30s. This is very rare.

Other names for Tay-Sachs disease include Tay-Sachs sphingolipidosis, infantile ganglioside lipidosis, cerebromacular degeneration, GM2 gangliosidosis Type 1, and amaurotic familial infantile idiocy.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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