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What is Huntington's disease?

Huntington’s disease (HD) is a genetic neurological disorder that causes the degeneration of nerve cells in the brain. The progression of the disease eventually results in the need for complete dependence on others for care.

Symptoms

Symptoms may appear at any time—in infants or the elderly—but usually emerge when a person is in their 30’s or 40’s.

Mental symptoms:

Subtle mood problems and difficulty forming thoughts or controlling impulses may appear first, then lead to declining cognitive function, sometimes including dementia. Depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), mania or bipolar disorder can also be associated with Huntington’s disease.

Physical symptoms:

The physical effects of HD begin with gait problems and slight uncontrolled motions, then grow in severity to include a loss of involuntary muscle coordination causing jerking or twisting movements, muscle rigidity, slow eye movement, difficulty speaking and weight loss.

Risk factors

A child of a parent with HD has a 50 percent chance of inheriting the mutated gene that causes it.

Types of treatment

Currently, there are no specific Huntington’s disease treatments. However, there are many medications that can improve individual symptoms, such as medications that improve chorea (abnormal movements), depression and psychosis, as well as memory impairment. There are also several drugs being studied that may be specifically helpful for Huntington’s disease treatment.

Medications most frequently used in the management of Huntington’s disease include medications that block the dopamine in the brain—a chemical in the brain (neurotransmitter) that is associated with some of the excessive movements and behavioral abnormalities. Examples of medications include risperidone, olanzapine and haloperidol.

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