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|Neural Tube Defects|
Neural tube defects are disorders involving incomplete development of the brain, spinal cord, and/or their protective coverings. The two most common neural tube defects are spina bifida and anencephaly.
Spina bifida (SB) is caused by the failure of the fetus's spine to close properly during the first month of pregnancy. Infants born with SB sometimes have an open lesion on their spine where significant damage to the nerves and spinal cord has occurred. Although the spinal opening can be surgically repaired shortly after birth, the nerve damage is permanent, resulting in varying degrees of paralysis of the lower limbs. Even when there is no lesion present there may be improperly formed or missing vertebrae and accompanying nerve damage. In addition to physical and mobility difficulties, most individuals have some form of learning disability.
There is no cure for SB because the nerve tissue cannot be replaced or repaired. Treatment for the variety of effects of SB may include surgery, medication, and physiotherapy. Many individuals with SB will need assistive devices such as braces, crutches, or wheelchairs. Ongoing therapy, medical care, and/or surgical treatments may be necessary to prevent and manage complications throughout the individual's life. Surgery to close the newborn's spinal opening is generally performed within 24 hours after birth to minimize the risk of infection and to preserve existing function in the spinal cord.
Anencephaly is a defect in the closure of the neural tube during fetal development. The neural tube is a narrow channel that folds and closes between the 3rd and 4th weeks of pregnancy to form the brain and spinal cord of the embryo. Anencephaly occurs when the "cephalic" or head end of the neural tube fails to close, resulting in the absence of a major portion of the brain, skull, and scalp. Infants with this disorder are born without a forebrain (the front part of the brain) and a cerebrum (the thinking and coordinating part of the brain). The remaining brain tissue is often exposed--not covered by bone or skin. A baby born with anencephaly is usually blind, deaf, unconscious, and unable to feel pain. Although some individuals with anencephaly may be born with a rudimentary brain stem, the lack of a functioning cerebrum permanently rules out the possibility of ever gaining consciousness. Reflex actions such as breathing and responses to sound or touch may occur.
The cause of anencephaly is unknown. Although it is thought that a mother's diet and vitamin intake may play a role, scientists believe that many other factors are also involved.
Recent studies have shown that the addition of folic acid (vitamin B9) to the diet of women of childbearing age may significantly reduce the incidence of neural tube defects. Therefore it is recommended that all women of childbearing age consume 0.4 mg of folic acid daily.
There is no cure or standard treatment for anencephaly. Treatment is supportive.