Usher Syndrome ~ Overview
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Usher syndrome is a family of genetic disorders characterized by early hearing loss and gradual vision loss. There are three distinct types described below.
*Based on a table created by the US National Institute on Deafness & other Communication Disorders.
The genetic changes responsible for Usher syndrome damage the sensory receptor cells (hair cells) in the inner ear, causing sensorineural hearing loss. This means that a structure in the inner ear, called the cochlea, is not able to detect sound and send information about it to the brain. In Usher syndrome type 1, hair cells in the vestibular portion of the inner ear are also damaged, resulting in balance problems. In many people with Usher syndrome, these problems are present at birth and detected in the first years of life.
Retinitis pigmentosa is the medical term for the type of gradual vision loss experienced by people with Usher syndrome. This vision loss is due to the slow death of rod and cone photoreceptor cells in the retina.
Parents of children with Usher syndrome are usually the first to notice that their child has limited hearing, so hearing problems are usually diagnosed in the first few years of life. At this point, vision loss will likely not be apparent, although subtle changes might be detected with vision testing.
When vision loss begins to be apparent, the first signs are usually a loss of night vision, followed by the gradual loss of peripheral vision.
Early hearing loss can be detected and diagnosed with standard audiologic testing, which determines what frequency of sounds a child can hear, and how loud the sounds at these frequencies must be before they are audible.
Children deaf at birth or diagnosed in early life should be screened for vision problems to detect Usher syndrome including:
- Visual field measures peripheral vision;
- A detailed retinal examination;
- ERG (electroretinogram) measures the retina’s electrical responses to light flashes. A large contact lens is placed on the eye to record them.
- ENG (electronystagmogram) may also be useful, revealing abnormal eye movements that sometimes accompany vision loss.
Balance tests are also done to clarify the diagnosis.
Usher syndrome is typically diagnosed with these tests. However, genetic testing – which can identify the mutated gene in about 50% of cases – is becoming more available.
Mutations (changes) in nine specific genes have been associated with Usher syndrome.
Usher Type 1: MY07A, USH1C, CDH23, PCDH15, SANS;
Usher Type 2: USH2A, VLGR1, WHRN;
Usher Type 3: USH3A
Clinical blood tests for some of these genes are available; ask your genetic counsellor.
Hearing loss in Usher syndrome cannot be reversed (at present); however, young children diagnosed today are often treated with cochlear implants. These devices stimulate the nerves of the inner ear directly, providing a substitute for natural hearing. If hearing is less severely affected, hearing aids may also be beneficial.
No treatments are currently approved to prevent or slow the vision loss associated with Usher syndrome. However, it is important to have regular eye exams to avoid serious but treatable complications that might further impair vision, such as cataracts and macular edema.
Several research groups are working to develop therapies for Usher syndrome including gene therapies in which new genetic material is inserted into the affected retinal cells, to restore function. Gene therapies are specific to only one genetic type of Usher syndrome. A gene therapy, called UshStat, has been approved for clinical trials in the USA. These trials will likely start in the next few months. UshStat is designed to treat defects in the for the MYO7A gene (which causes Usher type 1B). A gene therapy for the WHRN gene (type 2D) is also being tested in the laboratory.
The FFB supports scientists working to understand the causes of vision loss and develop treatments. In addition to gene therapies, FFB-funded scientists are working on many approaches to slow or even reverse retinal disease.
Updated September 15, 2011: Reviewed by Dr. Patrick Yang, Ophthalmology Resident, University of Toronto, and Dr. Bill Stell, The Foundation Fighting Blindness Expert Scientific Advisor and Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy at the Unversity of Calgary.