The enzyme involved in Tay-Sachs is called hexosaminidase A. Its absence allows a lipid called GM2 ganglioside to build up in the brain, destroying the nerve cells. The process starts in the fetus; the disease is clinically apparent in the first few months of life. Initial symptoms vary, but usually include a general slowing of development and loss of peripheral vision. By the age of one, most children are experiencing convulsions. The damage to the nervous system progresses inexorably, bringing with it an inability to swallow, difficulty in breathing, blindness, mental retardation, and paralysis.
In late-onset Tay-Sachs, which is often misdiagnosed, the symptoms (ataxia, dysarthria, and muscle weakness) usually become apparent late in childhood or early in adulthood. About 40% of the patients display symptoms of bipolar disorder. Life expectancy does not appear to be affected.