Huntington's disease (HD) results from genetically programmed degeneration of brain cells, called neurons, in certain areas of the brain. This degeneration causes uncontrolled movements, loss of intellectual faculties, and emotional disturbance. HD is a familial disease, passed from parent to child through a mutation in the normal gene.
One of its earliest names was chorea, which, as in "choreography," is the Greek word for dance. The term chorea describes how people affected with the disorder writhe, twist, and turn in a constant, uncontrollable dance-like motion. Later, other descriptive names evolved. "Hereditary chorea" emphasizes how the disease is passed from parent to child. "Chronic progressive chorea" stresses how symptoms of the disease worsen over time. Today, physicians commonly use the simple term Huntington's disease to describe this highly complex disorder that causes untold suffering for thousands of families.
Each child of an HD parent has a 50-50 chance of inheriting the HD gene. If a child does not inherit the HD gene, he or she will not develop the disease and cannot pass it to subsequent generations. A person who inherits the HD gene will sooner or later develop the disease. Whether one child inherits the gene has no bearing on whether others will or will not inherit the gene.
Some early symptoms of HD are mood swings, depression, irritability or trouble driving, learning new things, remembering a fact, or making a decision. As the disease progresses, concentration on intellectual tasks becomes increasingly difficult and the patient may have difficulty feeding himself or herself and swallowing. The rate of disease progression and the age of onset vary from person to person.
A genetic test, coupled with a complete medical history and neurological and laboratory tests, help physician's diagnose HD. Presymptomic testing is available for individuals who are at risk for carrying the HD gene. In 1 - 3% of individuals with HD, no family history of HD can be found.