21st March is the World Down Syndrome Day. This syndrome is a chromosomal combination that has always been part of the human condition. It exists in all regions of the world, and usually it has variable effects on learning styles, physical characteristics or health. It affects 1 in 700 children, making it the most common chromosomal abnormality and the first cause of mental disability. With this article I want to introduce a little more this syndrome.
WHY IS IT CALLED THAT?
Its name comes from the English doctor John Langdon Down who described a group of patients with intellectual disabilities and similar physical characteristics, in 1866. These patients had Down syndrome.
However, already existed artworks with people with Down syndrome (Figure 1), but Langdon Down was the first one to group them in a subcategory within individual with cognitive impairment.
It is called syndrome because the affected people express a known set of symptoms or signs that they may appear together, although its origin is unknown. Even though physical features are common, each person with Down syndrome is a unique individual and can present the characteristics in different degrees or not.
WHAT ARE THE FEATURES THAT CHARACTERIZE THEM?
- Diminished muscle tone
- Small ears
- Slanting eyes
- Short nose
- Flat back of head
- Single crease in the palm of the hand: simian crease: complete fusion between heart line and headline (Figure 2)
- Tendency to obesity
When they are children present retardation in reaching capabilities as sitting independently, wandering, first words…
WHICH IS THE ROLE OF GENETICS?
In 1959, Jérôme Lejeune, a French doctor, saw that people with Down syndrome had 47 chromosomes in each cell instead of 46. This extra chromosome was 21 (Figure 3). The article Why I look similar to my parents? reminds us what a chromosome is.
So, Down syndrome or trisomy 21, is a result of an extra chromosome. But having and extra copy of chromosome 21 can be given by three phenomena.
It is the major cause and represents 95% of cases. It is produced by an error in the process of cell division. It means that when parent’s cell divides there is an error, and the son inherits two copies of chromosome 21 instead of one.
Then the son has 3 chromosomes 21: 1 comes from one parent and 2 come from the other parent, which are transmitted together.
During the process of cell division of one parent, a chromosome 21 joins with other chromosome, usually a chromosome 14.
Then the son has 3 chromosomes 21: one comes from one parent and two come from the other parent.
It represents 4% of cases, and it is important to identify it to avoid passing the translocation to another child, if the couple wants another child.
It is the least common cause because it represents 1% of cases. After fertilization nondisjunction occurs, but not in all cells. This causes cells with 46 chromosomes and cells with 47, forming a mosaic.
Cells with 47 chromosomes have an extra chromosome 21.
HAVING A CHILD WITH DOWN SYNDROME
It has been found that the age of the mother is related to have a child with Down syndrome, i.e., the risk of having a baby with Down syndrome is greater among mother age 35 and older.
Trisomy 21 is the most trisomy accepted by nature, so in pregnancy test doctors always study it. If they detect a foetus has Down syndrome, the couple can choose to go ahead or to stop pregnancy.
People with Down syndrome are increasingly integrated into our society. Their IQ is 45-48, when the standard range is around 100, but with a special school integration support is highly beneficial and IQ can go up to 70.
Nowadays, more and more companies offering workplaces for them and this should not surprise us, because after all they only have an extra chromosome (Figure 4).
- Naciones Unidas: Día Mundial del síndrome de Down
- World Down Syndrome Day
- National Down Syndrome Society
- Medline Plus
- Down España