A Guide to Microcephaly with Pictures, Life Expectancy, Symptoms, and Treatment

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 below average.

This condition can be present at birth, when the 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.

In general, children with microcephaly have reduced life expectancies and poor brain function, though in 15 percent of cases children grow normally with normal intelligence.


Most often, this condition is caused by genetic abnormalities that interfere with the growth of the cerebral cortex during the first few months of pregnancy.

However, babies may also be born with microcephaly if their mother abused drugs or alcohol or became infected with a cytomegalovirus, rubella (German measles), varicella (chicken pox) virus, 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 (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 death that leads the brain to shrink further beyond the size of an impaired, microcephalic brain.

There are other conditions that can also cause microcephaly to develop:

  • Craniosynostosis. The premature fusing of the joints between bony plates that form an infant's skull will prevent the brain from growing. 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.


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

The child may also have:

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

Some with microcephaly have heads that do grow bigger but will still track below the curves for normal growth in regards to the circumference of their head.


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.

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


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 condition.

Depending on the child and the severity of their case of microcephaly, treatment will usually consist of supportive therapies. These therapies will help the child to reach their full potential. Occupational therapy can help children develop speech and physical coordination. There is also medicine available to help control hyperactivity, neuromuscular, 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.


More by this Author

Comments 1 comment

Jay Huffaker 5 months ago

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

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.

    Click to Rate This Article