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What is Canavan Disease?
Canavan disease is a rare leukodystrophyA group of rare genetic disorders that affect the central nervous system by disrupting the growth or maintenance of the myelin sheath that insulates nerve cells. Myelin is commonly referred to as the brain's "white matter", myelin covers nerve cells and ensures the clear transmission of nerve impulses from one part of the body to another. These disorders are progressive, meaning that they tend to get worse throughout the life of the patient. The word leukodystrophy comes from the Greek words leuko (meaning white), trophy (meaning growth), and dys (meaning ill). If you put these words together, the word leukodystrophy describes a set of diseases that affect the growth or maintenance of the white matter (myelin). More where the absence of a vital enzymeAccording to Genome.gov, an enzyme is a biological catalyst and is almost always a protein. It speeds up the rate of a specific chemical reaction in the cell. The enzyme is not destroyed during the reaction and is used over and over. More called aspartoacylase (ASPA) means the body cannot produce myelinIs the white matter coating our nerves, enabling them to conduct impulses between the brain and other parts of the body. It consists of a layer of proteins packed between two layers of lipids. Myelin is produced by specialized cells: oligodendrocytes in the central nervous system, and Schwann cells in the peripheral nervous system. Myelin sheaths wrap themselves around axons, the threadlike extensions of neurons that make up nerve fibers. Each oligodendrocyte can myelinate several axons. More, a fatty membrane that protects nerves in the brain. The nerve cells are vulnerable and unable to work properly, which damages the brain and spinal cord.
There is currently no cure for Canavan disease, but there are treatments and therapies to help manage symptoms and maintain a baselineBaseline is a technical term for “the new normal” or how things looks when they are stable. With Tay-Sachs, Canavan, GM1 gangliosidosis, and Sandhoff diseases, the baseline shifts, and often it shifts down over time like steps, where each lower step represents a lower level of functioning. More for as long as possible.
Canavan disease is a rare genetic condition that’s passed from parents to children. It is a recessive disorder, which means that both parents must carry the geneOften referred to as the "unit of heredity." A gene is composed of a sequence of DNA required to produce a functional protein. More for it to be passed on to a child.
Canavan disease exists on a spectrum, and every individual experiences it differently. Sometimes symptoms are noticeable at birth, and the condition usually becomes apparent between 3–6 months of age.
Between 3–6 months of age, you may notice your child:
- Has a large head (macrocephaly) and difficulty controlling their head
- Has decreased muscle tone (hypotoniaDecreased muscle tone, limpness. More)
- Experiences a slowdown in development
- Experiences reduced vision
Between 6–23 months, you may notice your child:
- Begins to regress, losing the ability to crawl, turn over, sit, and reach out
- Begins to lose coordination
- Progressively loses the ability to swallow
- Has trouble breathing
At 36 months and onward, you may notice your child:
- May experience recurrent seizuresA seizure is a sudden change in behavior due to an excessive electrical activity in the brain. There are a wide variety of possible symptoms of seizures, depending on what parts of the brain are affected. Many types of seizures cause loss of consciousness with twitching or shaking of the body. However, some seizures consist of staring spells that can easily go unnoticed. Occasionally, seizures can cause temporary abnormal sensations or visual disturbances. More
- Progressively loses muscle tone and function
To confirm a diagnosis, biochemical and genetic testing is conducted. Children with Canavan disease have higher levels of N-acetylaspartic acid (NAA) in the urine and a deficiency of ASPA in cultured skin fibroblasts. DNAThe chemical sequence found in genes, and which allows for the transmission of inherited information from generation to generation. More testing will uncover any mutations that cause Canavan disease.
When your child gets a Canavan disease diagnosis, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed. Take the time you need to absorb the news and process your emotions. Consider reaching out to family, friends, and neighbors to build a support network to help you today and moving forward.
You’re always welcome to reach out to our Family Services Team for information, advice, and support at any point in your experience.
When you’re ready, the following steps will help you get organized and move forward.
Philosophy of Care
Your Philosophy of Care is a clear plan that outlines your goals for your child’s care and health management. It includes the interventions you would like to use (and avoid) and reflects what you think will work best for you and your family.
Benefits of Having a Philosophy of Care
Overall, a Philosophy of Care lets you think through how you’d like to care for your child and communicate that information with your healthcare team. Specifically, your Philosophy of Care is vital during an emergency when it’s difficult to think clearly and make decisions quickly.
Every family’s Philosophy of Care is different—ranging from few interventions, moderate interventions, and more interventions—and we support all families in their decisions.
Make Your Own Philosophy of Care
To build a Philosophy of Care begin by jotting down thoughts and ideas as you research the disease, consult with healthcare providers, and discuss with your partner, family, close friends, and others. You may find you have a clear plan within days, or it might take weeks or months. Keep in mind that the Philosophy of Care isn’t written in stone. If a goal doesn’t serve your family anymore, it’s okay to change it or remove it altogether.
You can make your own Philosophy of Care or download our template here.
While there is currently no cure for Canavan disease, it is possible to manage symptoms like seizures and trouble swallowing as guided by your Philosophy of Care.
We recommend that you develop a respiratory health management plan with your pediatrician and consult with a pulmonologist for advanced respiratory health needs and management.
Children with Canavan disease are prone to lung infections because of increased saliva and mucus and reduced swallowing. There are many options available to promote respiratory health, including:
- Limiting exposure to people who may be sick
- Equipment (e.g., a respiratory therapy vest or positioning equipment)
- Taking extra precaution to make sure you child does not aspirate during feeding if they are eating or drinking orally. If you notice coughing episodes after eating orally, you may want to discuss a swallow study with your child’s care team.
- Speaking with your care team about how to manage secretions (e.g., suction machine, Botox treatments for the salivary glands, positioning)
Children with Canavan disease may experience seizures starting around three years. Some children respond well to seizure medications, while others do not. It can be a challenge to manage seizures and avoid side effects of medication, like drowsiness or increased secretions.
A trusted neurologist will help you manage seizures and develop a seizure management plan. We recommend finding a neurologist before your child experiences a seizure.
For more information on seizures:
- Watch our webinar on recognizing seizures with Dr. Jeffrey Buchhalter
- Download the Child Neurologist New Visit Toolkit in English and Spanish (via Child Neurology Foundation)
One of the biggest decisions you’ll make when it comes to care is whether to use a feeding tube when swallowing becomes too difficult. If you do wish to use a feeding tube, a swallow test can help determine when it is time to do so.
For more information on feeding and nutrition:
Even if they have some sensory impairment, your child will enjoy play and activities that provide stimulation. Some ideas include hanging bright, shiny mobiles, listening to different kinds of music, smelling kitchen spices and seasonal flowers, and touching different materials to see how they feel. Experiment to see what your child enjoys to encourage their development and make memories together.
Other forms of sensory stimulation include physical therapy, music therapy, and aqua therapy.
Complementary therapies can be used alongside traditional medicine to provide comfort and relaxation. Some examples of complementary therapies include physical therapy and massage.
Be sure to consult with your healthcare team before incorporating complementary therapies into your care routine.
For more information on complementary therapies:
- See our videos on range of motion and massage and physical therapy
How to Help
If your family member or close friend has a child diagnosed with Canavan disease, you may not know how to help. The best thing you can do is be there for them. Caregiving is incredibly time consuming and is emotionally and physically draining. It can also feel very lonely, and parents may struggle to ask for help.
There are many ways to help children, families, and siblings. Here are seven ways to get you started:
- Offer concrete help like picking up groceries, caring for siblings, cooking meals, doing the laundry, housecleaning, or offering to babysit.
- Learn about Canavan disease to get to know what they may be experiencing.
- Provide companionship by dropping in with coffee and a treat or inviting them out for a walk. If you’re out of town, try to visit in a way that won’t disrupt their daily routine.
- Listen with empathy and understanding, knowing they will experience a wide range of emotions.
- Be a resource, but don’t give advice.
- Get to know their special child by asking parents what they would like. You might offer to read a story, sing a song, or bring a soft stuffed toy to snuggle.
- Engage with siblings and invite them on special outings or your own family gatherings.
We’re Always Here to Help
Getting a Canavan diagnosis can be overwhelming. It’s hard to know what to do first. Our Family Services Team is here to help. They’ll answer your questions, share information, and invite you to connect with our caring and helpful Community.