What is Ataxia Telangiectasia?
Ataxia-telangiectasia is a rare, childhood neurological disorder that causes degeneration in the part of the brain that controls motor movements and speech. Its most unusual symptom is an acute sensitivity to ionizing radiation, such as X-rays or gamma-rays. The first signs of the disease, which include delayed development of motor skills, poor balance, and slurred speech, usually occur during the first decade of life. Telangiectasias (tiny, red “spider” veins), which appear in the corners of the eyes or on the surface of the ears and cheeks, are characteristic of the disease, but are not always present and generally do not appear in the first years of life. About 20% of those with A-T develop cancer, most frequently acute lymphocytic leukemia or lymphoma. Many individuals with A-T have a weakened immune system, making them susceptible to recurrent respiratory infections. Other features of the disease may include mild diabetes mellitus, premature graying of the hair, difficulty swallowing, and delayed physical and sexual development. Children with A-T usually have normal or above normal intelligence.
Is there any treatment?
There is no cure for A-T and, currently, no way to slow the progression of the disease. Treatment is symptomatic and supportive. Physical and occupational therapy may help maintain flexibility. Speech therapy may also be needed. Gamma-globulin injections may be given to help supplement a weakened immune system. High-dose vitamin regimens may also be used.
What is the prognosis?
The prognosis for individuals with A-T is poor. Those with the disease usually die in their teens or early 20s.
What research is being done?
NINDS-supported researchers discovered the gene responsible for A-T, known as ATM (ataxia-telangiectasia mutated) in 1995. This gene makes a protein that activates a number of other proteins that control cell cycle, DNA repair, and cell death. Without it, cells are unable to activate the cellular checkpoints that protect against the damage of ionizing radiation and other agents that can harm DNA. In addition to supporting basic research on A-T, NINDS also funds research aimed at drug development, including development of animal models, gene and stem-cell based therapies, and high-throughput drug screens. The NINDS also leads a trans-NIH A-T Working Group which includes members from NINDS, NHLBI, NIEHS, NCI, NEI, NIGMS, NHGRI, NIA, NIAID, NICHD, and ORD.