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By MIKAELA CONLEY (@mikaelaconley)
Nov. 8, 2011
When Scott Falciglia was 10 years old, his parents sat him down to tell him that his 40-year-old mother, Alice, was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, a devastating degenerative condition that breaks down nerve cells in the brains.
“They told me I was at risk and there’s no cure or treatment and it was very serious,” said Falciglia, 27, of South Norwalk, Conn.
The conversation set off a childhood and early adulthood in which he watched his mother’s physical and cognitive health decline. Every few months, he said, it seemed his mother lost the ability to perform another basic liberty or function.
“She couldn’t drive after she had a bad car wreck,” Falciglia said. “She reacted poorly to another car swerving in her direction and had a big accident. She had become unsafe to herself and others.”
Her speech and memory abilities declined and the twitches he had noticed in his mothers’ toes and fingers as a boy soon turned into the “Huntington’s dance,” jerky involuntary movements that constantly came from her hands and body.
“She was often mistaken for being intoxicated or mentally retarded,” he said.
Her ability to swallow soon dissipated and she needed help putting her makeup on, doing her hair and going to the bathroom.
“The biggest word is just frustrating to watch my mother go through that,” Falciglia said. “Your mind doesn’t totally fall apart right away, but your body does. It must be such a suffocating feeling, knowing her mind is functioning and she can’t talk and say what she wants to say. She was a sharp woman and could understand for a long time, but couldn’t communicate.”
“Her body was a cage,” he said.
Falciglia’s mother died in 2008 after living with the disease’s symptoms for 14 years. She was 54.
There is no cure and there are few treatments available for Huntington’s disease patients, but a new study published in the Lancet Neurology found that a drug known as pridopidine seems well-tolerated and efficient in helping patients control involuntary movements.
“The study shows modest improvement of a variety of motor deficits without relevant side effects in patients with Huntington’s disease,” said Dr. Justo Garcia de Yebenes, lead author of the study, which was based in Madrid, Spain.”For the moment these results contribute to the symptomatic treatment of a variety of motor deficits in patients with this disease.”
The disease is a debilitating genetic disorder that affects about 30,000 Americans. The condition causes involuntary movements, coordination and speech and swallowing problems, along with dementia. Children of parents with a single mutated gene have a 50 percent chance of developing it.
Falciglia said his family can trace the disease back to his great-great-grandmother, during a time when doctors did not understand the symptoms or have a name for the condition. His grandfather died of the disease and three out of his grandfather’s five children — Falciglia’s mom, along with an aunt in late stages of the disease and an uncle who died — suffered the same illness.
Onset of the disease typically begins around 40 years old, and patients usually die 15 to 20 years after symptoms surface, according to the Huntington ‘s Disease Society of America.
Falciglia has not been tested for the disease, and plans to “follow the book”– most doctors recommend children of Huntington’s disease patients only get tested if they become noticeably symptomatic.