What Are Neural Tube Defects and Can They Be Treated?

Neural tube defects are a group of birth defects that occur as the result of incomplete development of the brain, spine, and/or spinal cord. Treatment for these disorders is available, but an accurate diagnosis can make all the difference when it comes to successful treatment. Learn about neural tube defects, their causes, and how they can be treated in this article.

What are Neural Tube Defects?

Neural tube defects are a group of disorders that arise when a baby’s neural tube, which develops into the brain, spine and spinal cord, fails to form correctly as they grow in the womb. These defects can be mild or severe and can range from cleft lip or palate to spina bifida or hydrocephalus. In some cases, they can even lead to death if not treated properly.

Causes of Neural Tube Defects.

Neural tube defects can be caused by a number of different factors, including genetic mutations, environmental exposures and nutritional deficiencies. In some cases, they are hereditary, while others may be caused by the mother’s age or the type of medications she takes during pregnancy. One of the most common causes is a lack of folic acid in an expectant mother's diet; this B vitamins helps form the neural tube but is often lacking in prenatal diets.

Types of Neural Tube Defects.

Neural tube defects fall under four main categories: anencephaly, spina bifida, encephalocele and craniosynostosis. Anencephaly is the most severe of these, characterized by the baby being born without parts of the brain or skull; it is often fatal. Spina bifida occurs when there is an incomplete closure of the spine, which can be associated with neurological issues. Encephaloceles are characterised by sac-like protrusions of brain tissue out through the skull, while craniosynostosis occurs when sutures in the baby's skull prematurely close before brain growth is complete.

Diagnosis and Treatment Options for NTDs.

Neural tube defects can be diagnosed before the baby is born. Scanning methods such as ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can identify the NTDs during pregnancy. Treatment depends on the type and severity of the defect but may involve medications and/or surgery. Some conditions may require multiple surgeries or treatments over an extended period and some neural tube defects may not be treatable at all.

Prevention Strategies for Neural Tube Defects.

While some NTDs cannot be prevented, there are strategies that a pregnant woman can take to reduce the risk of her baby developing a neural tube defect. It is important for pregnant women to take a daily folic acid supplement of at least 400 micrograms as early in the pregnancy as possible. Adequate folic acid before and during early pregnancy is helpful in reducing the risk. A diet rich in foods containing folate like leafy greens, legumes, fortified cereals, and citrus fruits can also help provide the necessary nutrients for prevention.

Further resources available

Facts about Neural Tube Defects | CDC

What are the treatments for neural tube defects (NTDs)? | NICHD - Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (nih.gov)

Neural Tube Defects | Johns Hopkins Medicine

Neural tube defects | March of Dimes

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