Huntington disease is a disorder in which nerve cells in certain parts of the brain waste away, or degenerate. The disease is passed down through families.
Huntington disease is caused by a genetic defect on chromosome 4. The defect causes a part of DNA, called a CAG repeat, to occur many more times than it is supposed to. Normally, this section of DNA is repeated 10 to 28 times. But in persons with Huntington disease, it is repeated 36 to 120 times.
As the gene is passed down through families, the number of repeats tend to get larger. The larger the number of repeats, the higher your chance of developing symptoms at an earlier age. Therefore, as the disease is passed along in families, symptoms develop at younger and younger ages.
There are two forms of Huntington disease.
Adult-onset Huntington disease is the most common. Persons with this form usually develop symptoms in their mid 30s and 40s.
Early-onset Huntington disease affects a small number of cases and begins in childhood or the teens.
If one of your parents has Huntington disease, you have a 50% chance of getting the gene. If you get the gene from both your parents, you will develop the disease at some point in your life. You will also pass it on to your children. If you do not get the gene from your parents, you cannot pass the gene on to your children.
Behavior changes may occur before movement problems, and can include:
Restlessness or fidgeting
Abnormal and unusual movements include:
Facial movements, including grimaces
Head turning to shift eye position
Quick, sudden, sometimes wild jerking movements of the arms, legs, face, and other body parts
Slow, uncontrolled movements
Dementia that slowly gets worse, including:
Disorientation or confusion
Loss of judgment
Loss of memory
Additional symptoms that may be associated with this disease:
Genetic testing is available to determine whether a person carries the gene for Huntington disease.
There is no cure for Huntington disease. There is no known way to stop the disease from getting worse. The goal of treatment is to slow the symptoms and help the person function for as long as possible.
Medicines can be prescribed, depending on the symptoms.
Dopamine blockers may help reduce abnormal behaviors and movements.
Drugs such as amantadine and tetrabenazine are used to try to control extra movements.
Depression and suicide are common among persons with Huntington disease. It is important for caregivers to monitor for symptoms and seek medical help for the person right away.
As the disease progresses, the person will need assistance and supervision, and may eventually need 24-hour care.
Huntington disease causes disability that gets worse over time. Persons with this disease usually die within 15 to 20 years. The cause of death is often infection. Suicide is also common.
It is important to realize that the disease affects everyone differently. The number of CAG repeats may determine the severity of symptoms. Persons with few repeats may have mild abnormal movements later in life and slow disease progression. Those with a large number of repeats may be severely affected at a young age.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if you or a family member develops symptoms of this disorder.
Genetic counseling is advised if there is a family history of Huntington disease. Experts also recommend genetic counseling for couples with a family history of this disease who are considering having children.
Jankovic J. Movement disorders. In: Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, eds. Bradley’s Neurology in Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 71.
Lang A. Other movement disorders. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman’s Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 417.
Luc Jasmin, MD, PhD, FRCS (C), FACS, Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles CA; Department of Surgery at Los Robles Hospital, Thousand Oaks CA; Department of Surgery at Ashland Community Hospital, Ashland OR; Department of Surgery at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, Cheyenne WY; Department of Anatomy at UCSF, San Francisco CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.