Down syndrome, Down's syndrome, or trisomy 21 is a chromosomal disorder caused by the presence of all or part of an extra 21st chromosome. It is named after John Langdon Down, the British doctor who described the syndrome in 1866. The disorder was identified as a chromosome 21 trisomy by Jérôme Lejeune in 1959. The condition is characterized by a combination of major and minor differences in structure. Often Down syndrome is associated with some impairment of cognitive ability and physical growth as well as facial appearance. Down syndrome can be identified during pregnancy or at birth.
Individuals with Down syndrome tend to have a lower than average cognitive ability, often ranging from mild to moderate developmental disabilities. A small number have severe to profound mental disability. The incidence of Down syndrome is estimated at 1 per 800 to 1,000 births, although these statistics are heavily influenced by the age of the mother. Other factors may also play a role.
Many of the common physical features of Down syndrome also appear in people with a standard set of chromosomes. They may include a single transverse palmar crease (a single instead of a double crease across one or both palms, also called the Simian crease), an almond shape to the eyes caused by an epicanthic fold of the eyelid, upslanting palpebral fissures (the separation between the upper and lower eyelids), shorter limbs, poor muscle tone, a larger than normal space between the big and second toes, and protruding tongue. Health concerns for individuals with Down syndrome include a higher risk for congenital heart defects, gastroesophageal reflux disease, recurrent ear infections, obstructive sleep apnea, and thyroid dysfunctions.
Early childhood intervention, screening for common problems, medical treatment where indicated, a conducive family environment, and vocational training can improve the overall development of children with Down syndrome. Although some of the physical genetic limitations of Down syndrome cannot be overcome, education and proper care will improve quality of life.
Down syndrome is a chromosomal abnormality characterized by the presence of an extra copy of genetic material on the 21st chromosome, either in whole (trisomy 21) or part (such as due to translocations). The effects of the extra copy vary greatly among people, depending on the extent of the extra copy, genetic history, and pure chance. Down syndrome occurs in all human populations, and analogous effects have been found in other species such as chimpanzees and mice. Recently, researchers have created transgenic mice with most of human chromosome 21 (in addition to the normal mouse chromosomes). The extra chromosomal material can come about in several distinct ways. A typical human karyotype is designated as 46,XX or 46,XY, indicating 46 chromosomes with an XX arrangement typical of females and 46 chromosomes with an XY arrangement typical of males.
The incidence of Down syndrome is estimated at one per 800 to one per 1000 births. In 2006, the Center for Disease Control estimated the rate as one per 733 live births in the United States (5429 new cases per year). Approximately 95% of these are trisomy 21. Down syndrome occurs in all ethnic groups and among all economic classes.
Maternal age influences the chances of conceiving a baby with Down syndrome. At maternal age 20 to 24, the probability is one in 1562; at age 35 to 39 the probability is one in 214, and above age 45 the probability is one in 19. Although the probability increases with maternal age, 80% of children with Down syndrome are born to women under the age of 35, reflecting the overall fertility of that age group. Recent data also suggest that paternal age, especially beyond 42, also increases the risk of Down Syndrome manifesting in pregnancies in older mothers.
Current research (as of 2008) has shown that Down syndrome is due to a random event during the formation of sex cells or pregnancy. There has been no evidence that it is due to parental behavior or environmental factors.
Pregnant women can be screened for various complications during pregnancy. Many standard prenatal screens can discover Down syndrome. Genetic counseling along with genetic testing, such as amniocentesis, chorionic villus sampling (CVS), or percutaneous umbilical cord blood sampling (PUBS) are usually offered to families who may have an increased chance of having a child with Down syndrome, or where normal prenatal exams indicate possible problems. Genetic screens are often performed on pregnant women older than 30 or 35.
Amniocentesis and CVS are considered invasive procedures, in that they involve inserting instruments into the uterus, and therefore carry a small risk of causing fetal injury or miscarriage. There are several common non-invasive screens that can indicate a fetus with Down syndrome. These are normally performed in the late first trimester or early second trimester. Due to the nature of screens, each has a significant chance of a false positive, suggesting a fetus with Down syndrome when, in fact, the fetus does not have this genetic abnormality. Screen positives must be verified before a Down syndrome diagnosis is made. Common screening procedures for Down syndrome are given in Table 1.
|Screen||When performed (weeks gestation)||Detection rate||False positive rate||Description|
|Triple screen||15–20||75%||8.5%||This test measures the maternal serum alpha feto protein (a fetal liver protein), estriol (a pregnancy hormone), and human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG, a pregnancy hormone).|
|Quad screen||15–20||79%||7.5%||This test measures the maternal serum alpha feto protein (a fetal liver protein), estriol (a pregnancy hormone), human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG, a pregnancy hormone), and high inhibin-Alpha (INHA).|
|AFP/free beta screen||13–22||80%||2.8%||This test measures the alpha feto protein, produced by the fetus, and free beta hCG, produced by the placenta.|
|Nuchal translucency/free beta/PAPPA screen||10–13.5||91%||5%||Uses ultrasound to measure Nuchal Translucency in addition to the freeBeta hCG and PAPPA (pregnancy-associated plasma protein A). NIH has confirmed that this first trimester test is more accurate than second trimester screening methods.|
Even with the best non-invasive screens, the detection rate is 90%–95% and the rate of false positive is 2%–5%. False positives can be caused by undetected multiple fetuses (very rare with the ultrasound tests), incorrect date of pregnancy, or normal variation in the proteins.
Confirmation of screen positive is normally accomplished with amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling (CVS). Amniocentesis is an invasive procedure and involves taking amniotic fluid from the amniotic sac and identifying fetal cells. The lab work can take several weeks but will detect over 99.8% of all numerical chromosomal problems with a very low false positive rate.
A 2002 literature review of elective abortion rates found that 91–93% of pregnancies in the United States with a diagnosis of Down syndrome were terminated. Physicians and ethicists are concerned about the ethical ramifications of this. Conservative commentator George Will called it "eugenics by abortion". British peer Brian Rix stated that "alas, the birth of a child with Down's syndrome is still considered by many to be an utter tragedy" and that the "ghost of the biologist Sir Francis Galton, who founded the eugenics movement in 1885, still stalks the corridors of many a teaching hospital". Doctor David Mortimer has argued in Ethics & Medicine that "Down's syndrome infants have long been disparaged by some doctors and government bean counters. Some members of the disability rights movement "believe that public support for prenatal diagnosis and abortion based on disability contravenes the movement's basic philosophy and goals.
A 1998 study of Finnish doctors found that "Only very few, pediatricians somewhat more often, thought that Down's syndrome is not a good enough reason for pregnancy termination, but more (15-21%) thought that current prenatal screenings in general are (partly) based on eugenic thinking.
Individuals with Down syndrome differ considerably in their language and communication skills. It is routine to screen for middle ear problems and hearing loss; low gain hearing aids or other amplification devices can be useful for language learning. Early communication intervention fosters linguistic skills. Language assessments can help profile strengths and weaknesses; for example, it is common for receptive language skills to exceed expressive skills. Individualized speech therapy can target specific speech errors, increase speech intelligibility, and in some cases encourage advanced language and literacy. Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) methods, such as pointing, body language, objects, or graphics are often used to aid communication. Relatively little research has focused on the effectiveness of communications intervention strategies.
In education, mainstreaming of children with Down syndrome is becoming less controversial in many countries. For example, there is a presumption of mainstream in many parts of the UK. Mainstreaming is the process whereby students of differing abilities are placed in classes with their chronological peers. Children with Down syndrome may not age emotionally/socially and intellectually at the same rates as children without Down syndrome, so over time the intellectual and emotional gap between children with and without Down syndrome may widen. Complex thinking as required in sciences but also in history, the arts, and other subjects can often be beyond the abilities of some, or achieved much later than in other children. Therefore, children with Down syndrome may benefit from mainstreaming provided that some adjustments are made to the curriculum.
Some European countries such as Germany and Denmark advise a two-teacher system, whereby the second teacher takes over a group of children with disabilities within the class. A popular alternative is cooperation between special schools and mainstream schools. In cooperation, the core subjects are taught in separate classes, which neither slows down the typical students nor neglects the students with disabilities. Social activities, outings, and many sports and arts activities are performed together, as are all breaks and meals.
The most common manifestations of Down syndrome are the characteristic facial features, cognitive impairment, congenital heart disease (typically a ventricular septal defect), hearing deficits (maybe due to sensory-neural factors, or chronic serous otitis media, also known as Glue-ear), short stature, thyroid disorders, and Alzheimer's disease. Other less common serious illnesses include leukemia, immune deficiencies, and epilepsy.
However, health benefits of Down syndrome include greatly reduced incidence of many common malignancies except leukemia and testicular cancer — although it is, as yet, unclear whether the reduced incidence of various fatal cancers among people with Down syndrome is as a direct result of tumor-suppressor genes on chromosome 21 (such as Ets2), because of reduced exposure to environmental factors that contribute to cancer risk, or some other as-yet unspecified factor. In addition to a reduced risk of most kinds of cancer, people with Down syndrome also have a much lower risk of hardening of the arteries and diabetic retinopathy.
Research by Arron et al shows that some of the phenotypes associated with Down Syndrome can be related to the dysregulation of transcription factors (596), and in particular, NFAT. NFAT is controlled in part by two proteins, DSCR1 and DYRK1A; these genes are located on chromosome-21 (Epstein 582). In people with Down Syndrome, these proteins have 1.5 times greater concentration than normal (Arron et al. 597). The elevated levels of DSCR1 and DYRK1A keep NFAT primarily located in the cytoplasm rather than in the nucleus, preventing NFATc from activating the transcription of target genes and thus the production of certain proteins (Epstein 583).
This dysregulation was discovered by testing in transgenic mice that had segments of their chromosomes duplicated to simulate a human chromosome-21 trisomy (Arron et al. 597). A test involving grip strength showed that the genetically modified mice had a significantly weaker grip, much like the characteristically poor muscle tone of an individual with Down Syndrome (Arron et al. 596). The mice squeezed a probe with a paw and displayed a .2 newton weaker grip (Arron et al. 596). Down syndrome is also characterized by increased socialization. When modified and unmodified mice were observed for social interaction, the modified mice showed as much as 25% more interactions as compared to the unmodified mice (Arron et al. 596).
The genes that may be responsible for the phenotypes associated may be located proximal to 21q22.3. Testing by Olson et al. in transgenic mice show the duplicated genes presumed to cause the phenotypes are not enough to cause the exact features. While the mice had sections of multiple genes duplicated to approximate a human chromosome-21 triplication, they only showed slight craniofacial abnormalities (688-690). The transgenic mice were compared to mice that had no gene duplication by measuring distances on various points on their skeletal structure and comparing them to the normal mice (Olson et al. 687). The exact characteristics of Down Syndrome were not observed, so more genes involved for Down Syndrome phenotypes have to be located elsewhere.
Reeves et al, using 250 clones of chromosome-21 and specific gene markers, were able to map the gene in mutated bacteria. The testing had 99.7% coverage of the gene with 99.9995% accuracy due to multiple redundancies in the mapping techniques. In the study 225 genes were identified (311-313).
The search for major genes that may be involved in Down syndrome symptoms is normally in the region 21q21–21q22.3. However, studies by Reeves et al. show that 41% of the genes on chromosome-21 have no functional purpose, and only 54% of functional genes have a known protein sequence. Functionality of genes was determined by a computer using exon prediction analysis (312). Exon sequence was obtained by the same procedures of the chromosome-21 mapping.
Research has led to an understanding that two genes located on chromosome-21, that code for proteins that control gene regulators, DSCR1 and DYRK1A can be responsible for some of the phenotypes associated with Down Syndrome. DSCR1 and DYRK1A cannot be blamed outright for the symptoms; there are a lot of genes that have no known purpose. Much more research would be needed to produce any appropriate or ethically acceptable treatment options.
Recent use of transgenic mice to study specific genes in the Down syndrome critical region has yielded some results. APP is an Amyloid beta A4 precursor protein. It is suspected to have a major role in cognitive difficulties. Another gene, ETS2 is Avian Erythroblastosis Virus E26 Oncogene Homolog 2. Researchers have "demonstrated that over-expression of ETS2 results in apoptosis. Transgenic mice over-expressing ETS2 developed a smaller thymus and lymphocyte abnormalities, similar to features observed in Down syndrome."
Vitamin supplements, in particular supplemental antioxidants and folinic acid, have been shown to be ineffective in the treatment of Down syndrome.
Despite these changes, the additional support needs of people with Down syndrome can still pose a challenge to parents and families. Although living with family is preferable to institutionalization, people with Down syndrome often encounter patronizing attitudes and discrimination in the wider community.
The first World Down Syndrome Day was held on 21 March 2006. The day and month were chosen to correspond with 21 and trisomy respectively. It was proclaimed by European Down Syndrome Association during their European congress in Palma de Mallorca (febr. 2005). In the United States, the National Down Syndrome Society observes Down Syndrome Month every October as "a forum for dispelling stereotypes, providing accurate information, and raising awareness of the potential of individuals with Down syndrome. In South Africa, Down Syndrome Awareness Day is held every October 20. Organizations such as Special Olympics Hawaii provide year-round sports training for individuals with intellectual disabilities such as down syndrome.
By the 20th century, Down syndrome had become the most recognizable form of mental disability. Most individuals with Down syndrome were institutionalized, few of the associated medical problems were treated, and most died in infancy or early adult life. With the rise of the eugenics movement, 33 of the (then) 48 U.S. states and several countries began programs of forced sterilization of individuals with Down syndrome and comparable degrees of disability. The ultimate expression of this type of public policy was "Action T-4" in Nazi Germany, a program of systematic murder. Court challenges, scientific advances and public revulsion led to discontinuation or repeal of such sterilization programs during the decades after World War II.
Until the middle of the 20th century, the cause of Down syndrome remained unknown. However, the presence in all races, the association with older maternal age, and the rarity of recurrence had been noticed. Standard medical texts assumed it was caused by a combination of inheritable factors which had not been identified. Other theories focused on injuries sustained during birth.
With the discovery of karyotype techniques in the 1950s, it became possible to identify abnormalities of chromosomal number or shape. In 1959, Jérôme Lejeune discovered that Down syndrome resulted from an extra chromosome. The extra chromosome was subsequently labeled as the 21st, and the condition as trisomy 21.
In 1961, eighteen geneticists wrote to the editor of The Lancet suggesting that Mongolian idiocy had "misleading connotations," had become "an embarrassing term," and should be changed. The Lancet supported Down's Syndrome. The World Health Organization (WHO) officially dropped references to mongolism in 1965 after a request by the Mongolian delegate. However, almost 40 years later, the term ‘mongolism’ still appears in leading medical texts such as General and Systematic Pathology, 4th Edition, 2004, edited by Professor Sir James Underwood.
In 1975, the United States National Institutes of Health convened a conference to standardize the nomenclature of malformations. They recommended eliminating the possessive form: "The possessive use of an eponym should be discontinued, since the author neither had nor owned the disorder. Although both the possessive and non-possessive forms are used in the general population, Down syndrome is the accepted term among professionals in the USA, Canada and other countries; Down's syndrome is still used in the United Kingdom and other areas.
The Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles maintains a list of individuals with Down syndrome in roles in TV and movies.