Definition

Huntington's disease (HD) is an inherited disorder that affects the brain. HD causes slow, progressive degeneration of nerve cells in certain areas of the brain. Eventually, HD results in:

    
  • Abnormal body movements
  • Gradual deterioration or loss of intellectual abilities
  • Behavior problems
  • Causes

    A faulty gene on chromosome #4 causes HD. All people who inherit the faulty gene may eventually develop HD.

    Risk Factors

    Having family members with HD increases your chance of developing HD. Each person whose parent has HD has a 50% chance of inheriting the disorder.

    Symptoms

    Symptoms most often develop between the ages of 30-50 years. Symptoms are mild at first and are often barely noticeable, but usually worsen over 15-20 years.

    Abnormal body movements that worsen over time, may include:

        
  • Sudden jerks or uncontrolled movements of the limbs or trunk
  • Facial grimacing
  • Continuous need to turn head and shift gaze
  • Walking that is unsteady or dance-like
  • Gradual deterioration or loss of intellectual abilities may include:

        
  • Difficulty with eating and swallowing, which may result in weight loss
  • Difficulty dressing, sitting, and caring for oneself
  • Grunting or poor articulation of speech
  • Loss of intellectual and behavior problems may include:

        
  • Trouble with attention and awareness
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Loss of memory
  • Loss of judgment
  • Loss of ability to think rationally
  • Irritability and moodiness
  • Depression (common)
  • Anxiety
  • Social withdrawal or antisocial behavior
  • Irresponsible behavior
  • Obsessive-compulsive behavior
  • Personality changes
  • Psychosis—a severe emotional and behavioral disorder that often interferes with a person's ability to relate to others and to function in daily life
  • Paranoia—a mental disorder that involves feelings of being watched, followed, or harmed by others
  • Hallucinations—the perception of a thing or person that is not present
  • Ultimately, HD can:

        
  • Cause the loss of the physical and mental ability to care for oneself
  • Cause severe disability, making full-time or nursing home care necessary
  • Result in death, often due to a fall or pneumonia
  • Diagnosis

    The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history (including family medical history). A physical exam will be done. Blood tests can rule out other conditions. You may need to have imaging tests, which take pictures of internal body structures. Imaging tests include:

        
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • PET scan
  • CT Scan of the Head

    CT Scan of the Head

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  • There is a test that can determine if a person has inherited the gene for HD. This test may help to make the diagnosis of HD. It may also help to determine if a person has inherited the HD gene before symptoms appear. Genetic counseling is recommended before taking this test to review risks and benefits.

    Treatment

    There is no cure for HD. Treatment aims to help control symptoms.

    Medications

    Drugs can help control abnormal movements and emotional symptoms of HD. These include:

        
  • Tetrabenazine
  • Antipsychotics
  • Antidepressants
  • Physical Fitness

    Staying physically active helps people with HD to function better and longer. Often physical and occupational therapy may be of some benefit.

    Prevention

    There is no way to prevent the onset of HD if a person has inherited the gene for the disorder. If you have a family history of HD, talk with a genetic counselor.