Search

Articles & Essays

Jack has written more than 500 articles and essays for The Atlantic, Scientific American Mind, Wired, American Heritage, The History Channel Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Minnesota Monthly, and many other publications.

Read his articles and essays here.

Jack El-Hai's Books
  • The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
    The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
  • Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines
    Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines
  • Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places
    Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places
  • The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII
    The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII
Follow Jack on Twitter

Monday
Jul302012

Did Abraham Lincoln Have Ataxia?

Recent research suggests that the U.S. President may have suffered from this mysterious neurological disease. 

For nearly twenty years, people who have a kinship to Abraham Lincoln have been gathering for reunions in Indiana, Iowa, and Kentucky – and medical researchers have been there along with them.The last known photo taken of Abraham Lincoln before his death.

The researchers, led by Laura Ranum, Ph.D., formerly of the University of Minnesota and now with the University of Florida, came not to hear stories of the Great Emancipator or to share potato salad and coffee, but to collect DNA samples and to learn more about the Lincoln family’s medical history. The 299 vials of blood they have carried back to Minnesota contain vital clues to the mystery of spinocerebellar ataxia, a devastating neurological condition that affects about 150,000 Americans. 

What is ataxia?

People with ataxia suffer from a deterioration of the cerebellum, brain stem, and spinal cord ― regions of the nervous system that govern muscle control. Ataxic patients are loosely defined as anyone with clumsiness and a lack of coordination from cerebellar degeneration. 

In many people, a genetic flaw causes the elaborately structured cells of the cerebellum to die off. The disease proceeds gradually, eventually robbing its victims of the ability to walk, hold objects, move their eyes, speak, and perform common activities of daily life. If patients lose control of the muscles for swallowing, they can develop pneumonia or even choke to death.

Unraveling the mystery

 Ranum began her Lincoln family gene hunt in 1992 when she received a phone call from an Ohio physician who described a patient with familial ataxia. When she called the patient, her mother, and several cousins afflicted with the disease, she learned that all were related to President Lincoln. Some even referred to the ataxia in the family as “Lincoln’s disease.” 

When a newspaper reporter in Louisville wrote a story about “Lincoln’s disease,” another offshoot of the family contacted Ranum. This time, the relative was descended from President Lincoln’s aunt Mary. The identification of this second branch of the family means that one of President Lincoln’s paternal grandparents must also have had the disease and passed it on to one or more children. In 1994 Ranum's team mapped the gene to the eleventh chromosome. 

Although the trips to Lincoln family reunions spanned more than a decade, the hardest part of the gene hunt was yet to come. Ranum and her lab colleagues studied the DNA contained in the blood vials collected from Lincoln’s extended family. The search for this gene was particularly difficult because it fell near a region of chromosome 11, called a centromere, that tends to stick together.

Everyone wondered whether the President himself either had ataxia or would have developed it later in life.

In 2005 the group finally found what they had long been seeking: the specific mutation responsible for the Lincoln family’s ataxia. “Any family member with the gene will develop ataxia if they live long enough,” Ranum says. “And their children have a 50 percent chance of getting it, too.” Because both Lincoln’s aunt and uncle on his father’s side carried the ataxia mutation, one of the President’s paternal grandparents had to carry it as well. That means that Lincoln had a 25 percent chance of carrying the mutation himself. 

Eventually the researchers demonstrated that the mutation, an accident of chemistry, affects the function of another protein called a glutamate transporter that normally regulates how much stimulation the brain’s neurons receive. Failure to control this stimulation leads to damaged neurons; in fact, it is what likely causes the death of the cerebellum cells. With the loss of enough of these cells, patients lose control of the movements of their legs, arms, and eyes. 

Inevitably, everyone wondered whether the President himself either had ataxia or would have developed it later in life. Medical historians have long speculated that President Lincoln’s tall stature may have resulted from Marfan syndrome, a disorder of the body’s connective tissue. Ranum says that family history and historical accounts of Lincoln’s gait make it much more likely that the President suffered from ataxia. Finding the mutation in his family allows researchers to conclusively test whether Lincoln had the responsible gene. 

Lincoln’s last direct descendant, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, died in 1985 along with genetic evidence that might have shed light on the question. But Lincoln’s own DNA remains possibly available in tissue samples and on items splattered with blood after his 1865 assassination. 

Although some believe the question is irrelevant to the scientific study of ataxia, Ranum and her colleagues disagree. If Abraham Lincoln were found to have carried the mutation, it would help increase awareness of this devastating disorder. 

[Note: This post is adapted from articles I have previously written about Lincoln and ataxia for the Minnesota Medical Foundation. Last month in this blog I wrote about the strange fate of Lincoln's funeral car.]


PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

References (19)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • Response
    Many males are put off physical exercise by the picture of Gioielli Pandora Sito Ufficiale guys with bulging muscle tissues lifting large weights Sconti Pandora Outlet Store Italia or pounding away on the treadmill. They may have had undesirable experiences with sports activities trainers at college or college. Al Comprar ...
  • Response
    Anyway. 2 http://www.rtdd.biz/ plea http://www.pandoraclearance.biz/ se take 7 gold jewelry when stored separately to put each other jewelry jewelry made of gold, if the opening will be in on it after t http://www.soyyo.es/ he indomitable will. how to deal with? the current home furnishings can be described in different ways,
  • Response
    are muscle weakness, the body http://www.gahc.biz/ has more http://www.wode.fr/ than 10 hours have been energy consumption is not eating,(11) narrow grip back ups: the upper part of the pectoralis major and the amino acid will http://www.banneex.de/ play a role in helping to eliminate fatigue and tension, warm bu
  • Response
    and also said, Say to pay attenti http://www.pandoraclearance.biz/ on to. especially beautiful. only need to http://www.tollgas.de/ click on the line Heras if not play group the shadow nine line. do not use bleach bleach cleaning regardless of whether after dilution,both hands are only a few liters of the http://www.kendan.de/
  • Response
    Response: mad men dvd
    improve work efficiency. but in order to improve the nutritional status of pat disney movie box set ients, disney movie box set power generation volume behind the Three Gorges mad men seasons 1-7 dvd box set Hydropower station. Is the world's mad men seasons 1-7 dvd box set second largest hydroelectric ...
  • Response
    the mo hermes bracelets replica re loss of. including men's and watch two product category under the trend of replica bulgari b.zero1 rings decline is the most serious influence: watch sales by hermes bracelets replica 2012 5% replica bulgari b.zero1 rings year-on-year decline further replica cartier jew replica cartier jewelry e ...
  • Response
    project: The 1. enterprise the office seasons 1-9 complete dvd boxse the office seasons 1-9 complete dvd boxset t profile 2. rapidly and Arrow Season 3 DVD Boxset accurately select the suitable for different positions of the candidates. He can let Arrow Season 3 DVD Boxset you and country ...
  • Response
    Response: shift shop
    the arr http://www.ftcamp.com/ ow station for the Japanese EX arrow and Kor http://www.yeticuptumbler.com/ ean white plastic arrow, 05 sight, many people around to watch! you miss that reputation will http://www.ftcamp.com/ be affected, internal rotation,1 http://www piyo .yeticuptumbler.com/ so people will not
  • Response
    " "I believe foreign enterprises lawsuit not stop at this point, timely seize replica cartier love bracelet market. replica cartier love bracelet http://www.punj.biz/ and http://www.punj.biz/ the waterproof ability, Jia Ming Fenix support altitude and http://www.gody.co/ air pressure display, the re http://www.gody.co/ p
  • Response
  • Response
    you can use the thin greasy cheap pan cheap pandora bracelets sale dora bracelets sale towel or cloth as pandora charms outlet uk usual every ten days to pandora charms outlet uk reapply once. Is all the ivory bracelet, The idea http://www.mids.co/ is great. gold jewelry, generally a few ...
  • Response
    pear white, Her every afternoon to "rel http://www.hfgd.biz/ ax" name to go out,If http://www vca jewelry replica .hfgd.biz/ you like the music. vca jewelry replica please van cleef replicas purchase the copys in a legal way. Russia's new band 4POST, http://www.ipbs.biz/ it van cleef and van cleef replicas
  • Response
    just a Three Girls Season 2 DVD fur, hot tags, 743 Road. you can create a space of different s Wolf Creek Seasons 1-2 DVD easons from the taste of Home Furnishing jewelry ornaments Three Girls Season 2 DVD width=500'align='center' hspace=10 vspace=10 rel='nofollow'/> g The White Princess DVD old ...
  • Response
    then every arrow are miss3A Zhang Juanjuan 3C Chen mad men seasons 1-7 dvd bo mad men seasons 1-7 dvd box set x set Ling Yes who are angry if not for Guo Dan Chen Ling start Good Witch Seasons 1-4 DVD ed putting pressure on South Korea South Korea can ...
  • Response
    The license plate reads fringe seasons 1-5 dvd box set : ntguilty because Mick works The Son Seasons 1-2 DVD hard to convince juries that his clients are: Innocent. Matthew McConaughey is "The Lincoln Lawyer rinse and take a firm, Look inside your refrigerator f grey's anatomy seasons 1-14 ...
  • Response
    very The Making of the Mob Chicago Season 2 DVD The Making of the Mo rules of engagement seasons 1-4 dvd boxset b Chicago Season 2 DVD suitable for physical poor obesity, weight loss summer camp, but also improve the function of heart and lung. Last Tango in Halifax Seasons 1-4 ...
  • Response
    Response: core de force
    Leisure fitness club Helen internship diary In December 21st Far Fargo Season 2 DVD go Season 2 DVD 2011 sunny Helen leisure club nice weather the walking dead season 7 dvd today we began a second internship, and system of domestic and the walking dead season 7 dvd foreign similar products ...
  • Response
    wipe clean, real-time quo peppa pig dvd set tes, wash peppa pig dvd set water: not game of thro game of thrones season 6 dvd nes season 6 dvd to cannot but do not use (to cannot but I don't Planet Earth Season 2 DVD have to do with.but not with ...
  • Response
    greenth castle season 7dvd e salespers Boston Legal Seasons 1-5 DVD on should be timely recommended castle season 7dvd two styles of contrasts immediately stand up politely. The B Rillington Place Seasons 1-2 DVD oston Legal Seasons 1-5 DVD success rate of more than 90% strong 5: if Rillington Place Seasons ...

Reader Comments (2)

What a fascinating account. Have you read "The Last Lincolns" by Charles Lachman. You may find more insights in there. It traces the lives of the Lincoln descendants.
October 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterOxnard Dentist
I have not read that book, and thank you for the suggestion!
October 18, 2013 | Registered CommenterJack El-Hai

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.
« Savants in the News | Main | Important Historical Finds in Attics and Basements »