Neural Tube Defects

Birth defects of the brain and spinal cord

Neural tube defects are birth defects which affect your baby's brain and/or spinal cord, occurring in approximately 1 in every 1000 live births in the United States. The neural tube is a structure which forms very early in embryonic development, in the first four weeks of pregnancy. It goes on to become the baby's brain and spinal cord. Neural tube defects occur when the tube does not completely close. The two most common types are spina bifida and anencephaly.


The causes of neural tube defects include exposure to teratogens and a failure to take in enough folic acid during your pregnancy. Folic acid is a B vitamin which is extremely important to proper fetal development, and you must ensure you get enough in your diet while you're pregnant. Many pregnant women also take prenatal vitamin supplements to ensure they're getting enough folic acid in addition to the other vital nutrients and vitamins their bodies need.

The March of Dimes recommends that all women of childbearing age get at least 400 mcg of folic acid a day, whether or not they are pregnant or trying to become pregnant. Since the neural tube forms so early in pregnancy, before most women even know they are pregnant, waiting for a positive pregnancy test to start prenatal vitamins might be too late.


Anencephaly is defined as the absence of all or part of your baby's brain or skull. It is rare, occurring in about 1 out of every 10,000 pregnancies. If it happens, it will be detected early in the pregnancy and you will be notified by your doctor; ultrasound tests are used to diagnose anencephaly. Unfortunately, there is no treatment for anencephaly and it typically results in the death of the baby before it is born, or a few days after its birth. The symptoms of anencephaly include an absence of the skull, absence of one or both brain hemispheres, serious heart defects and abnormalities of the facial and head structure. If it is detected during your pregnancy via an ultrasound screening, your doctor will discuss your options with you; terminating the pregnancy is the most common treatment.

Spina Bifida

In the United States, spina bifida is the most commonly occurring disabling neural tube birth defect. It occurs if the fetus' spinal column does not fuse properly during the first month of pregnancy. Babies born with spina bifida may suffer from a range of symptoms, including at least partial paralysis of the legs. Learning disabilities, hydrocephalus and urinary and bowel tract defects also commonly afflict children with spina bifida.

As with anencephaly, there is no cure for spina bifida. Treatment options focus on the exact symptoms of the specific symptoms of your child's case of spina bifida, and may include interventions such as physical therapy and surgery designed to ease symptoms and improve the child's quality of life.