Hunting for a needle in a haystack: Scientists identify the gene that causes ARSACS

Written by Dr. Sriram Jayabal Edited by Dr. Brenda Toscano-Marquez

Scientists uncover SACS, a gene containing the largest exon identified in vertebrates, which leads to ARSACS when mutated.

What is your morning routine? Coffee first, right? Now, try to think of all the diverse movements you need to make to accomplish this routine. For instance, just to get a cup of coffee, you have to complete a sequence of motor tasks: you start by pulling the pot out of the machine, then you walk to the tap, fill the pot with water, walk back, pour the water into the machine, put your coffee in, and then finally turn on the machine.

needle in haystack
Picture courtesy of Pixabay

To perform any of these movements, your brain needs to communicate with dozens of muscles in your body. Unfortunately, in people who are affected by hereditary ataxias, the brain loses the ability to coordinate these precise movements. These diseases primarily affect the way patients walk (the symptom that defines “ataxia”), eventually forcing them to use a wheelchair for the rest of their lives.

Hereditary ataxias can be broadly classified as either dominant or recessive. Dominantly-inherited ataxias can be passed down even if only one of the parents is affected; therefore, the disease does not skip generations. Recessive ataxias are inherited from parents who are both carriers of the disease mutation (and who do not usually show any symptoms). Therefore, recessive ataxias can skip generations.

One such recessive ataxia is called Autosomal Recessive Spastic Ataxia of Charlevoix-Saguenay (ARSACS). It was first discovered in people from the Charlevoix-Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec, Canada [1]. In this region, it is estimated that one out of every 22 individuals is a carrier for the disease mutation [2]. Though prevalent in this specific area of Canada, ARSACS has now been identified all across the world. Symptoms usually start in early childhood when toddlers are learning to walk. These children experience stiffness in the legs (spasticity) and incoordination in their gait (ataxia), leading them to fall more often. They also have difficulties writing, speaking, and performing tasks that require manual dexterity (usually actions that involve hand movements, like reaching for and grasping an object). They continue to experience worsening gait as they age, often needing a cane or handrail to move around by the time they reach adolescence. Around this time, many patients also experience retinal hypermyelination (an eye abnormality) and peripheral neuropathy (damage to the nerves throughout the body). By their thirties, they become dependent on a wheelchair. There is currently no cure for ARSACS, so it is imperative to study this disease’s underlying causes to identify effective treatments.

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