Neural tube defects are birth defects of the brain, spine, or spinal cord. They happen in the first month of pregnancy, often before a woman even knows that she is pregnant. The two most common neural tube defects are spina bifida and anencephaly. In spina bifida, the fetal spinal column doesn’t close completely. There is usually nerve damage that causes at least some paralysis of the legs. In anencephaly, most of the brain and skull do not develop. Babies with anencephaly are usually either stillborn or die shortly after birth. Another type of defect, Chiari malformation, causes the brain tissue to extend into the spinal canal.
The exact causes of neural tube defects aren’t known. You’re at greater risk of having an infant with a neural tube defect if you
- Are obese
- Have poorly controlled diabetes
- Take certain antiseizure medicines
Getting enough folic acid, a type of B vitamin, before and during pregnancy prevents most neural tube defects.
Neural tube defects are usually diagnosed before the infant is born, through lab or imaging tests. There is no cure for neural tube defects. The nerve damage and loss of function that are present at birth are usually permanent. However, a variety of treatments can sometimes prevent further damage and help with complications.
NIH: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
Anencephaly is a condition that prevents the normal development of the brain and the bones of the skull. This condition results when a structure called the neural tube fails to close during the first few weeks of embryonic development. The neural tube is a layer of cells that ultimately develops into the brain and spinal cord. Because anencephaly is caused by abnormalities of the neural tube, it is classified as a neural tube defect.Because the neural tube fails to close properly, the developing brain and spinal cord are exposed to the amniotic fluid that surrounds the fetus in the womb. This exposure causes the nervous system tissue to break down (degenerate). As a result, people with anencephaly are missing large parts of the brain called the cerebrum and cerebellum. These brain regions are necessary for thinking, hearing, vision, emotion, and coordinating movement. The bones of the skull are also missing or incompletely formed.Because these nervous system abnormalities are so severe, almost all babies with anencephaly die before birth or within a few hours or days after birth.