Neural Tube Defects

What are neural tube defects?

Neural tube defects (NTDs) are birth defects. They affect a baby’s spine, spinal cord, or brain. Normally, a fetus’ neural tube develops into their brain, spinal cord, and spinal column. A NTD occurs if the tube doesn’t fully form or close completely.

The different kinds of neural tube defects are:

  • Spina bifida. This is the most common NTD. It occurs in the base of the fetus’ spinal column. The opening allows part of the spinal cord to poke through the column. Spina bifida comes in several types.
  • Anencephaly. It occurs in the upper part of the neural tube. This causes unformed sections of the fetus’ brain, skull, and scalp. It is more common in girls than boys.
  • Encephalocele. This is similar to anencephaly, but rarer. It occurs when part of the brain and membranes poke through the skull.
  • Chiara malformation. Also rare, it occurs when brain tissue leaks into the fetus’ spinal canal.

Symptoms of neural tube defects

The main sign of NTDs is physical deformities. Symptoms can include paralysis, developmental delays, and seizures.

What causes neural tube defects?

The cause of NTDs is not exact. The defects begin in the first month of pregnancy. A lot of women don’t even know they are pregnant at this stage.

Your risk for having a baby with neural tube defects increases if you:

  • have a family history of NTDs
  • are obese
  • have diabetes
  • take certain medicines to prevent seizures
  • are of a certain race. NTDs are highest among Hispanics.

Other potential risk factors are genetics and the environment.

How are neural tube defects diagnosed?

Your doctor often diagnoses NTDs during pregnancy. The defects can show up on imaging or lab tests. If your doctor sees signs of an NTD, they may perform additional tests.

Can neural tube defects be prevented or avoided?

The best way to help prevent neural tube defects is with folic acid. This is a type of B vitamin. You can take it as a supplement or in a multivitamin. Folic acid also is found in some enriched or fortified foods. Things like cereals, breads, pastas, rices, and flours can have higher amounts. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommends that all women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant should take folic acid. They need 0.4 to 0.8 mg (400 to 800 mcg) every day.

Doctors also suggest eating foods high in folate. This can be found in:

  • dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach
  • broccoli
  • asparagus
  • beans
  • peas
  • lentils
  • oranges and orange juice.

Neural tube defects treatment

NTDs do not have cures. Treatment options focus on relieving pain and preventing future damage. Babies who have spina bifida may need surgery to help correct damage.

Living with neural tube defects

Babies who have anencephaly do not live. They either are stillborn or die hours after birth. Babies who have other NTDs have lasting effects. Spina bifida can cause paralysis below the spine. Another common issue is problems going to the bathroom.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How do I know if I need folic acid?
  • Should I wait until I’m pregnant to start taking folic acid?
  • What are the benefits to diagnosing an NTD during pregnancy?