Batten disease is a rare group of nervous system disorders called neuronal ceroid lipofuscinosis (NCLs) that get worse over time. It usually starts in childhood, between the ages of 5 and 10. There are different forms of the disease but all are fatal, usually by the late teens or twenties. The damage is caused by the buildup of fatty substances, called lipopigments, in the cells of the brain, central nervous system, and retina in the eye.
Out of every 100,000 babies born in the United States, it’s estimated that about two to four have this disease that’s passed down through families. Since it’s genetic, it can affect more than one person in the same family. Both parents have to be carriers of the gene in order to pass it down. Each one of their children has a one in four chance of getting it.
Over time, Batten disease damages the brain and nervous system. There are four main types of this condition. These are their common symptoms:
- Changes in personality and behavior
- Speech and motor skills problems that get worse over time
There are four major types of Batten disease. The type will determine the age when symptoms occur and how fast they develop.
Originally, doctors only referred to one form of NCL as Batten disease, but now the name refers to the group of disorders. Of the four major types, the three that affect children all cause blindness.
Infantile NCL (INCL) usually shows up between the ages of 6 months and 2 years. It also can cause microcephaly, as well as sharp contractions (jerks) in the muscles. Most children with INCL die before they turn 5 years old.
Late Infantile NCL (LINCL) typically starts between the ages of 2 and 4 with symptoms like seizures that don’t get better with medication. It includes the loss of muscle coordination. LINCL is usually fatal by the time a child is 8 to 12 years old.
Adult NCL (ANCL) starts before the age of 40. People who have it have shorter life spans, but the age of death can vary from person to person. The symptoms of ANCL are milder and they tend to progress more slowly. This form of the disease does not result in blindness.
Diagnosis and Tests
Batten disease is often misdiagnosed, because it’s rare and many conditions share some of the same symptoms. Since vision loss is usually one of the earliest signs of the disease, eye doctors can be the first ones to suspect a problem. Multiple exams and tests might be needed before your doctor makes a diagnosis. Doctors often refer children to neurologists if they think they need more tests.
There are different kinds of tests a neurologist can use to diagnose Batten disease:
Tissue samples or eye exam: By examining tissue samples under a microscope, doctors can look for the buildup of certain kinds of deposits. Sometimes doctors can see these deposits just by looking into a child’s eyes. As the deposits build up over time, they can cause pink and orange circles to develop. This is called a “bull’s eye.”
DNA test: If you know members of your family have Batten disease, you can get a DNA test to confirm a diagnosis.
There’s currently no known treatment for any form of Batten disease. Symptoms like seizures can be improved with certain medications. Other symptoms and issues can be treated too. Some people with Batten disease get physical or occupational therapy to help them function. Scientists continue to research possible treatments and therapies.