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Psychological impact of genetic testing for Huntington's disease: an update of the literature

Abstract

Genetic testing has been available for Huntington's disease for longer than any other adult onset genetic disorder. The discovery of the genetic mutation causing Huntington's disease made possible the use of predictive testing to identify currently unaffected carriers. Concerns have been raised that predictive testing may lead to an increase in deaths by suicide among identified carriers, and these concerns set in motion research to assess the psychological impact of predictive testing for Huntington's disease. This review article provides an overview of the literature and draws implications for clinical practice. About 10%–20% of people at risk request testing when approached by registries or testing centres. Most of the evidence suggests that non-carriers and carriers differ significantly in terms of short term, but not long term, general psychological distress. Adjustment to results was found to depend more on psychological adjustment before testing than the testing result itself. Although risk factors for psychological sequelae have been identified, few adverse events have been described and no obvious contraindications for testing people at risk have been identified. The psychological impact of testing may depend on whether testing was based on linkage analysis or mutation detection. Cohorts enrolled in mutation detection programmes have higher levels of depression before and after testing, compared with people who sought genetic testing when linkage analysis was available. There is evidence that people who choose to be tested are psychologically selected for a favourable response to testing. The impact of testing on people in settings where less intensive counselling protocols and eligibility criteria are used is unknown, and genetic testing is therefore best offered as part of comprehensive specialist counselling.

  • Huntington's disease
  • psychological adjustment
  • genetic testing
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