Guide to Microcephaly: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment Methods, Life Expectancy, and Pictures

Updated on June 7, 2018
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Dr. Suresh Kumar lives in India and enjoys writing about medical topics.

A side-view illustration of a baby with microcephaly (left) compared to a baby with a typical head size.
A side-view illustration of a baby with microcephaly (left) compared to a baby with a typical head size. | Source

What is Microcephaly?

Microcephaly (my-kroh-SEF-uh-lee) is a rare neurological condition. The name means "small head." When comparing an infant with microcephaly to a normal infant of the same age and gender, the circumference of the head is significantly smaller.

This condition can be present at birth, a sign that brain did not develop properly in the womb, or appear when the child is a few years old. In the latter instance, the brain stops growing normally.

Generally, children with microcephaly have reduced life expectancies and poor brain function, though in 15 percent of cases children grow normally both mentally and physically.

Symptoms

The primary symptom of microcephaly is a smaller-than-average skull. If the microcephaly is severe, the child may also have a forehead that slopes backward.

A microcephalic child may also have:

  • High-pitched cry
  • Reduced appetite
  • Severe developmental impairment
  • Short stature
  • Seizures
  • Delayed motor functions
  • Delayed speech
  • Balance and coordination difficulties
  • Facial distortions
  • Hyperactivity
  • Other neurological and brain abnormalities

Some suffering from microcephaly have heads that grow beyond what is normally expected, but they will still have smaller heads that a person who is not suffering from the condition.

Diagnosing Microcephaly

Microcephaly can be diagnosed before birth using a prenatal ultrasound.

After birth, the physician will measure the distance around the top of the baby's head, called the circumference, which is then compared to others of the same age and sex using the standardized growth chart.

Causes

This condition is most often caused by genetic abnormalities interfering with the growth of the cerebral cortex during the first few months of pregnancy.

Babies may also be born with microcephaly if their mother abused drugs or alcohol or became infected with a cytomegalovirus, rubella (German measles), varicella virus (chicken pox), or Zika virus during pregnancy. It is also possible for the condition to occur if the mother was exposed to certain toxic chemicals or had untreated phenylketonuria, which is a harmful buildup of the amino acid phenylalanine in the blood, during pregnancy.

When contracted through a virus, such as the Zika virus, there is often widespread tissue and cell damage that leads the brain to shrink.

There are a few other conditions that can also cause microcephaly:

  • Craniosynostosis: The premature fusing of joints between bony plates that form an infant's skull. Treatment usually involves surgery to separate the fused bones. If there are no underlying problems in the brain, this surgery allows the brain adequate space to grow and develop.
  • Severe malnutrition
  • Chromosomal abnormalities: Microcephaly is often associated with neurometabolic syndrome, Down’s syndrome, and other chromosomal syndromes.

A baby with microcephaly during a physical therapy session in Brazil.
A baby with microcephaly during a physical therapy session in Brazil. | Source

Treatment

Aside from surgery to treat fused skeletal bones, there is no known cure for microcephaly. Treatments focus on managing the neurological disabilities and deformities associated with the condition.

Depending on the child and the severity of the case, treatment will usually consist of supportive therapies. This type of therapy helps the child reach their full potential.

Also, occupational therapy can help microcephalic children develop speech and physical coordination. Another option is taking medicine to help control hyperactivity, neuromuscular, and/or seizure symptoms.

Life Expectancy

Individuals with microcephaly may live a normal life span. In severe cases, however, babies born with the condition die in infancy.

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    • profile image

      Nabeel Arshad 

      15 months ago

      Hi.. my son is 4 years old and he has small head size ...his activities are same like normal baby.. butt he is slow from his age and don't speech in like others.... I want to get information about any school in us where he can get admission and speech and learner.... help me plz I am from pakistan

    • profile image

      Irma 

      19 months ago

      I have a 45 years old niece. That has a fibroid in the uterus. Surgeon afraid to do surgery. Is there any surgeon that deals with this kind of issues.? Thanks!

    • profile image

      Naz 

      20 months ago

      My daughter is born with zika virus and she have a small head ...I met with nerology and they say her brain is badly damage n she will not be able to walk or talk. I am worried n so stress about it I would love to get more advice about this case what can be don't and what will be the out come of her I cry all the time . Pls help

    • profile image

      Sardonic 

      22 months ago

      Put the misqito head babies to sleep in the womb! Do not let them live outs in the open air for more misquetos to bite! And transfer this horrible bowels of hell demon! Apocalypse and the new form of dwarfism goody goody! Nope but the hands of god doing it! Himself! Demons of the Apocalypse!

    • profile image

      Jay Huffaker 

      2 years ago

      I question the association of Down's syndrome with microcephalic and gestational diabetes being a cause for microceohaly

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