If you and your partner are newly pregnant, you may be amazed at the number and variety of prenatal tests available to you. Blood tests, urine tests, monthly medical exams, diet questionnaires, and family history tracking - each helps to assess the health of you and your baby, and to predict any potential health risks.
Unlike your parents, you may also have the option of genetic testing. These tests identify the likelihood of passing certain genetic diseases or disorders (those caused by a defect in the genes - the tiny, DNA-containing units of heredity that determine the characteristics and functioning of the entire body) to your children.
Some of the more familiar genetic disorders are : -
- Down syndrome
- cystic fibrosis
- sickle cell disease
- Tay-Sachs disease (a fatal disease affecting the central nervous system)
- spina bifida
If your history suggests that genetic testing would be helpful, you may be referred to a genetic counselor. Or, you might decide to seek out genetic counseling yourself.
But what do genetic counselors do, and how can they help your family ?
What Is Genetic Counseling ?
Genetic counseling is the process of : -
- evaluating family history and medical records
- ordering genetic tests
- evaluating the results of this investigation
- helping parents understand and reach decisions about what to do next
Genetic tests are done by analyzing small samples of blood or body tissues. They determine whether you, your partner, or your baby carry genes for certain inherited disorders.
Genes are made up of DNA molecules, which are the simplest building blocks of heredity. They're grouped together in specific patterns within a person's chromosomes, forming the unique "blueprint" for every physical and biological characteristic of that person.
What are Genes ?
Humans have 46 chromosomes, arranged in pairs in every living cell of our bodies. When the egg and sperm join at conception, half of each chromosomal pair is inherited from each parent. This newly formed combination of chromosomes then copies itself again and again during fetal growth and development, passing identical genetic information to each new cell in the growing fetus.
Some diseases, such as Huntington's disease (a degenerative nerve disease) and Marfan syndrome (a connective tissue disorder), can be inherited from just one parent. Most disorders, including cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, and Tay-Sachs disease, cannot occur unless both the mother and father pass along the gene.
Other genetic conditions, such as Down syndrome, are usually not inherited. In general, they result from an error (mutation) in the cell division process during conception or fetal development. Still others, such as achondroplasia (the most common form of dwarfism), may either be inherited or the result of a genetic mutation.
Genetic tests don't yield easy-to-understand results. They can reveal the presence, absence, or malformation of genes or chromosomes. Deciphering what these complex tests mean is where a genetic counselor comes in.
About Genetic Counselors
Genetic counselors are professionals who have completed a master's program in medical genetics and counseling skills. They then pass a certification exam administered by the American Board of Genetic Counseling.
Genetic counselors can help identify and interpret the risks of an inherited disorder, explain inheritance patterns, suggest testing, and lay out possible scenarios. (They refer you to a doctor or a laboratory for the actual tests.) They will explain the meaning of the medical science involved, provide support, and address any emotional issues raised by the results of the genetic testing.
Genetic counselors can help you understand your options and adjust to any uncertainties you face, but you and your family will have to decide what to do next.
If you've learned prior to conception that you and/or your partner are at high risk for having a child with a severe or fatal defect,
your options might include : -
- pre-implantation diagnosis - when eggs that have been fertilized in vitro (in a laboratory, outside of the womb) are tested for defects at the 8-cell (blastocyst) stage, and only nonaffected blastocysts are implanted in the uterus to establish a pregnancy
- using donor sperm or donor eggs
If you've received a diagnosis of a severe or fatal defect after conception, your options might include : -
- preparing yourself for the challenges you'll face when you have your baby
- fetal surgery to repair the defect before birth (surgery can only be used to treat some defects, such as spina bifida or congenital diaphragmatic hernia, a hole in the diaphragm that can cause severely underdeveloped lungs. Most defects cannot be surgically repaired.)
- ending the pregnancy
- For some families, knowing that they'll have an infant with a severe or fatal genetic condition seems too much to bear. Other families are able to adapt to the news - and to the birth - remarkably well.
- Genetic counselors can share the experiences they've had with other families in your situation. But they will not suggest a particular course of action. A good genetic counselor understands that what is right for one family may not be right for another.
- Genetic counselors can, however, refer you to specialists for further help. For instance, many babies with Down syndrome are born with heart defects. Your counselor might encourage you to meet with a cardiologist to discuss heart surgery, and a neonatologist to discuss the care of a post-operative newborn. Genetic counselors can also refer you to social workers, support groups, or mental health professionals to help you adjust to and prepare for your complex new reality.
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