Tay-Sachs disease

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Tay-Sachs Disease



Tay-Sachs disease is a genetic disorder caused by a missing enzyme that results in the accumulation of a fatty substance in the nervous system. This results in disability and death.


Gangliosides are fatty substances necessary for the proper development of the brain and nerve cells (nervous system). Under normal conditions, gangliosides are continuously broken down, so that an appropriate balance is maintained. In Tay-Sachs disease, the enzyme necessary for removing excess gangliosides is missing. This allows gangliosides to accumulate throughout the brain, and is responsible for the disability associated with the disease.
Tay-Sachs disease is particularly common among Jewish people of Eastern European and Russian (Ashkenazi) origin. About one out of every 3,600 babies born to Ashkenazi Jewish couples will have the disease. Tay-Sachs is also more common among certain French-Canadian and Cajun French families.

Causes and symptoms

Tay-Sachs is caused by a defective gene. Genes are located on chromosomes, and serve to direct specific development/processes within the body. The genetic defect in Tay-Sachs disease results in the lack of an enzyme called hexosaminidase A. Without this enzyme, gangliosides cannot be degraded. They build up within the brain, interfering with nerve functioning. Because Tay-Sachs is a recessive disorder, only people who receive two defective genes (one from the mother and one from the father) will actually have the disease. People who have only one defective gene and one normal gene are called carriers. They carry the defective gene and thus the possibility of passing the gene and/or the disease onto their offspring.
When a carrier and a non-carrier have children, none of their children will actually have Tay-Sachs. It is likely that 50% of their children will be carriers themselves. When two carriers have children, their children have a 25% chance of having normal genes, a 50% chance of being carriers of the defective gene, and a 25% chance of having two defective genes. The two defective genes cause the disease itself.
Classic Tay-Sachs disease strikes infants around the age of six months. Up until this age, the baby will appear to be developing normally. When Tay-Sachs begins to show itself, the baby will stop interacting with other people and develop a staring gaze. Normal levels of noise will startle the baby to an abnormal degree. By about one year of age, the baby will have very weak, floppy muscles, and may be completely blind. The head will be quite large. Patients also present with loss of peripheral (side) vision, inability to breath and swallow, and paralysis as the disorder progresses. Seizures become a problem between ages one and two, and the baby usually dies by about age four.
A few variations from this classical progression of Tay-Sachs disease are possible:
  • Juvenile hexosaminidase A deficiency. Symptoms appear between ages two and five; the disease progresses more slowly, with death by about 15 years.
  • Chronic hexosaminidase A deficiency. Symptoms may begin around age five, or may not occur until age 20-30. The disease is milder. Speech becomes slurred. The individual may have difficulty walking due to weakness, muscle cramps, and decreased coordination of movements. Some individuals develop mental illness. Many have changes in intellect, hearing, or vision.


Examination of the eyes of a child with Tay-Sachs disease will reveal a characteristic cherry-red spot at the back of the eye (in an area called the retina). Tests to determine the presence and quantity of hexosaminidase A can be performed on the blood, specially treated skin cells, or white blood cells. A carrier will have about half of the normal level of hexosaminidase A present, while a patient with the disease will have none.


There is no treatment for Tay-Sachs disease.


Sadly, the prognosis for a child with classic Tay-Sachs disease is certain death. Because the chronic form of Tay-Sachs has been discovered recently, prognosis for this type of the disease is not completely known.


Prevention involves identifying carriers of the disease and providing them with appropriate information concerning the chance of their offspring having Tay-Sachs disease. When the levels of hexosaminidase A are half the normal level, a person is a carrier of the defective gene. Blood tests of carriers reveals reduction of hexosaminidase A.

Key terms

Ganglioside — A fatty (lipid) substance found within the brain and nerve cells.
When a woman is already pregnant, tests can be performed on either the cells of the baby (aminocentesis) or the placenta (chorionic villus sampling) to determine whether the baby will have Tay-Sachs disease.



Late Onset Tay-Sachs Foundation. 1303 Paper Mill Road, Erdenheim, PA 19038. (800)672-2022.
March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation. 1275 Mamaroneck Avenue, White Plains, NY 10605. (888) 663-4637. resourcecenter@modimes.org. http://www.modimes.org.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Tay-Sachs disease

 [ta saks]
the infantile form of neuronal ceroid-lipofuscinosis, inherited as an autosomal recessive trait and affecting chiefly Ashkenazic Jews. With each pregnancy couples who are carriers have a one in four chance of having a child with the condition, a one in two chance of having a carrier like themselves, and a one in four chance of having a child who neither has the disease nor is a carrier. It is a progressive disorder marked by degeneration of brain tissue and the maculas (with formation of a cherry red spot on both retinas) and by dementia, blindness, and death. Tay-Sachs disease is a sphingolipidosis in which the inborn error of metabolism is a deficiency of the enzyme hexosaminidase A, resulting in accumulation of GM2 ganglioside in the brain.

It is possible to test for this disease in the unborn fetus at 14 weeks of pregnancy. An absence of hexosaminidase A indicates conclusively that the fetus has Tay-Sachs disease. Carriers of the trait have lowered levels of the enzyme in their blood, thus permitting screening of populations most susceptible to transmission of the trait to their offspring and genetic counseling of known carriers. No therapy is currently available. Most children with Tay-Sachs disease die of bronchopneumonia at 3 to 4 years of age.

The National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases Association (NTSAD) is dedicated to the treatment and prevention of Tay-Sachs, canavan, and related diseases. It provides information and support services to individuals and families affected by the diseases, as well as to the public at large. Their address is National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases Association, 2001 Beacon Street, Suite 204, Boston MA 02135. The telephone number is 800-906-8723.
Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.

Tay-Sachs dis·ease

(tā saks),
a lysosomal storage disease, resulting from hexosaminidase A deficiency. The monosialoganglioside is stored in central and peripheral neuronal cells. Infants present with hyperacusis and irritability, hypotonia, and failure to develop motor skills. Blindness with macular cherry red spots and seizures are evident in the first year. Death occurs within a few years. Autosomal-recessive transmission; found primarily in Jewish people.
Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary © Farlex 2012

Tay-Sachs disease

A hereditary disease that affects young children almost exclusively of eastern European Jewish descent, in which an enzyme deficiency leads to the accumulation of gangliosides in the brain and nerve tissue, resulting in intellectual disability, convulsions, blindness, and, ultimately, death.
The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2007, 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Tay-Sachs disease

GM2-gangliosidosis Pediatric neurology A rare AR lipid storage disease, most common in Ashkenazi Jews–carrier frequency 1:30, due to hexosaminidase A deficiency, resulting in accumulation of gangliosides in neurons, cerebellum, axons Clinical Onset at 4-6 months with arrest and decline of psychomotor activities, irritability, hyperacusis, convulsions, chorioathetosis, spasticity, decerebrate rigidity, death by age 3. See Gangliosidosis.
McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Tay-Sachs dis·ease

(tā saks di-zēz')
A lysosomal storage disease resulting from hexosaminidase-A deficiency. The monosialoganglioside is stored in central and peripheral neuronal cells. Infants present with hyperacusis and irritability, hypotonia, and failure to develop motor skills. Blindness with macular cherry-red spots and seizures are evident in the first year.
Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing © Farlex 2012

Tay-Sachs disease

A recessive genetic disorder, affecting mainly Ashkenazi Jews, in which the absence of an enzyme necessary for the breakdown of ganglioside in the nervous system leads to damaging accumulation of this material. The condition appears soon after birth and features blindness, deafness, progressive dementia, seizures, paralysis and death, usually before the age of 3. There is no effective treatment but the diagnosis can be made before birth by CHORIONIC VILLUS SAMPLING and termination of pregnancy considered. (Warren Tay, 1843–1927, British ophthalmologist; and Bernard Sachs, 1858–1944, American neurologist).
Collins Dictionary of Medicine © Robert M. Youngson 2004, 2005

Tay-Sachs disease

a lethal human condition in which children who are apparently normal at birth show signs within six months of marked deterioration of brain and spinal cord. By the age of one year the child can only lie helplessly, becoming mentally retarded, increasingly blind and paralysed. Death occurs between three and four years, with no known survivors and no cure. The condition is controlled by the recessive alleles of a gene located on chromosome 15, double recessives producing a deficient amount of the enzyme hexosaminidase A which leads to the accumulation of complex fatty substances in the CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM.
Collins Dictionary of Biology, 3rd ed. © W. G. Hale, V. A. Saunders, J. P. Margham 2005


Bernard, U.S. neurologist, 1858-1944.
Tay-Sachs disease - see under Tay


Warren, English physician, 1843-1927.
Tay cherry-red spot - the ophthalmoscopic appearance of the normal choroid beneath the fovea centralis. Synonym(s): cherry-red spot
Tay-Sachs disease - cerebral sphingolipidosis, infantile type. Synonym(s): infantile GM2 gangliosidosis
Medical Eponyms © Farlex 2012

Tay-Sachs dis·ease

(tā saks di-zēz')
A lysosomal storage disease resulting from hexosaminidase-A deficiency.
Medical Dictionary for the Dental Professions © Farlex 2012
References in periodicals archive ?
Perl, Daniel 2001 "Barney Sachs and the history of the neuropathologic description of Tay-Sachs disease." Advances in Genetics 44:11-23.
Genetic variants of Tay-Sachs disease: Tay-Sachs disease and Sandhoff's disease in French Canadians, juvenile Tay-Sachs disease in Lebanese Canadians, and a Tay-Sachs screening program in the French- Canadian population.
Hogikian, "A deletion involving Alu sequences in the beta-hexosaminidase alpha-chain gene of French Canadians with Tay-Sachs disease," The Journal of Biological Chemistry, vol.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that Ashkenazi Jews be screened for Tay-Sachs disease, Canavan disease, cystic fibrosis, and familial dysautonomia, and the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG) adds five more diseases.
Testing Fate: Tay-Sachs Disease and the Right to Be Responsible
Last year, Ryan and wife Sam's two-year-old son Rohan was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease - a genetic condition which causes progressive damage to the nervous system.
Some of the more common disorders for which such screening is done are cystic fibrosis, sickle cell disease, thalassemia, and Tay-Sachs disease. (21)
Preconception risk assessment for thalassaemia, sickle cell disease, cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs disease. Cochrane Database Syst Rev.
This year he was raising cash for research into Tay-Sachs disease, a rare genetic disorder which causes the deterioration of nerve cells and is usually fatal.
Before I was Manuelo's family doctor, I had only read about the neurodegenerative condition Tay-Sachs disease. Caused by a recessive gene, it mostly affects people of Ashkenazi Jewish or French Canadian descent.
[USPRwire, Wed Mar 25 2015] GlobalData's clinical trial report, "Tay-Sachs Disease Global Clinical Trials Review, H1, 2015" provides data on the Tay-Sachs Disease clinical trial scenario.