Tay-Sachs Disease

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Tay-Sachs disease is a gangliosidosis characterised by:

  • An exaggerated startle response.
  • Delay in psychomotor development.
  • Hypotonia (followed by spasticity)
  • Visual loss.
  • A macular cherry-red spot.

Tay-Sachs disease (and its variants) are caused by absence or defects of the alpha subunit of hexosaminidase A. This leads to the accumulation of GM2 ganglioside in neurons of the central nervous system and retina. This causes progressive neurodegeneration and developmental delay.

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  • Tay-Sachs disease is an autosomal recessive inherited disorder.[1]
  • It is strongly associated with Ashkenazy Jews (1 in 30 Ashkenazy Jews carries the gene).
  • There are also isolated populations with increased risk around the world.
  • It is rare in the UK; 1 in 360,000 live births worldwide.[2]
  • Incidence is decreasing in at-risk populations, due to prenatal screening.

The disease is classified by its age at presentation as either infantile (classic), juvenile or late-onset.

  • An early and persistent extension response to sound ('startle reaction') is useful for recognising the disorder.
  • Examination of reflexes shows hyperreflexia.
  • Fundoscopy typically shows a grey-white area around the retinal fovea centralis, due to lipid-laden ganglion cells, leaving a central 'cherry-red' spot. The cherry-red central spot is seen in the macula of those affected with infantile and juvenile forms but not the late-onset form of Tay-Sachs disease.

Infantile form

  • Normal development until about 5 months when it becomes apparent with excessive startle reaction and failure to reach landmarks for motor development.
  • After 8 months the patient declines rapidly with increasing weakness, leading to paralysis with difficulty in swallowing.
  • Other features include apathy, uncontrollable seizures, spasticity and dementia.
  • Death follows in the second or third year of life.

Juvenile form

  • At 3-10 years patient starts to lose motor and verbal skills.
  • May be impairment in cognitive ability and/or sight.
  • Patient declines to dementia with seizures, with death by age 16 years.

Late-onset form

  • First presents in adolescence and shows progressive neurological deficits with cognitive loss, ataxia.[3]
  • 1 in 3 affected patients present with psychotic symptoms.

Any other cause of developmental delay:

  • Dementia.
  • Seizures.
  • Upper motor neurone disorder.
  • Red blood cells - (homozygotes and heterozygotes have a reduced concentration of sphingomyelin).[2]
  • Enzyme assay - (deficient hexosaminidase A activity in serum, white blood cells or tissue cultures, including amniocytes).
  • Abnormal results should be followed by DNA analysis, which can also help to identify other carriers in the family for discussion of child-bearing options and prenatal diagnosis.
  • CT or MRI scan (to detect cerebellar atrophy).
  • Electromyogram - (denervation and reinnervation may be seen in the adult chronic form).

There is no effective treatment for Tay-Sachs disease. Enzyme replacement has not yet been successful.
Supportive care eg antiepileptic drugs for seizures, physiotherapy for spasticity. Speech and language services may offer support on airway protection and feeding.

Severe difficulties with mobility and self-care lead to an enormous physical and emotional strain for the carer(s).

Tay-Sachs disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder.[1]

  • The classic infantile form is usually fatal by age 2 or 3 years.[1] Death usually occurs due to intercurrent infection.
  • In the juvenile form, death usually occurs by age 10-15 years; preceded by several years of vegetative state with decerebrate rigidity. Death is usually due to infection.
  • In the adult form, most patients have a normal life expectancy.

Screening for carriers in affected populations, especially in family members of affected patients. This should be offered with preconception counselling.[4]

Further reading & references

  1. Tay-Sachs Disease, Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM)
  2. Tegay DH; GM2 Gangliosidoses, eMedicine, Nov 2009
  3. Zaroff CM, Neudorfer O, Morrison C, et al; Neuropsychological assessment of patients with late onset GM2 gangliosidosis. Neurology. 2004 Jun 22;62(12):2283-6.; Neurology. 2004 Jun 22;62(12):2283-6.
  4. Sutton VR; Tay-Sachs disease screening and counseling families at risk for metabolic disease. Obstet Gynecol Clin North Am. 2002 Jun;29(2):287-96.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Colin Tidy
Current Version:
Document ID:
2833 (v22)
Last Checked:
20/04/2011
Next Review:
18/04/2016

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