What causes Huntington’s disease?
HD results from genetically programmed degeneration of nerve cells, called neurons,* in certain areas of the brain. This degeneration causes uncontrolled movements, loss of intellectual faculties, and emotional disturbance. Specifically affected are cells of the basal ganglia, structures deep within the brain that have many important functions, including coordinating movement. Within the basal ganglia, HD especially targets neurons of the striatum, particularly those in the caudate nuclei and the pallidum. Also affected is the brain’s outer surface, or cortex, which controls thought, perception, and memory.
How is Huntington’s disease inherited?
HD is found in every country of the world. It is a familial disease, passed from parent to child through a mutation or misspelling in the normal gene.
A single abnormal gene, the basic biological unit of heredity, produces HD. Genes are composed of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), a molecule shaped like a spiral ladder. Each rung of this ladder is composed of two paired chemicals called bases. There are four types of bases, adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine, each abbreviated by the first letter of its name: A, T, C, and G. Certain bases always “pair” together, and different combinations of base pairs join to form coded messages. A gene is a long string of this DNA in various combinations of A, T, C, and G. These unique combinations determine the gene’s function, much like letters join together to form words. Each person has about 30,000 genes, a billion base pairs of DNA or bits of information repeated in the nuclei of human cells, which determine individual characteristics or traits.
Genes are arranged in precise locations along 23 rod-like pairs of chromosomes. One chromosome from each pair comes from an individual’s mother, the other from the father. Each half of a chromosome pair is similar to the other, except for one pair, which determines the sex of the individual. This pair has two X chromosomes in females and one X and one Y chromosome in males. The gene that produces HD lies on chromosome 4, one of the 22 non-sex-linked, or “autosomal,” pairs of chromosomes, placing men and women at equal risk of acquiring the disease.