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Microcephaly – Pictures, Life Expectancy, Causes, Symptoms, Treatment

Updated on February 17, 2014

What is Microcephaly ?

Microcephaly is a neurological disorder characterized by a smaller head size than what is considered standard. Individuals affected by this condition have abnormally small heads which are not proportional to their body size. Furthermore, mental retardation could also exist since the brain is underdeveloped. This congenital aberration could already be present at birth or may develop early in life. Microcephaly has a number of possible causes; just as the extent of problems resulting from the condition also largely vary between individuals. For this reason, this condition is treated based on the symptoms exhibited by the child and the treatment methods employed greatly differs from case to case.

About Microcephaly

Derived from the words “micro” which means small and "cephaly” pertaining to the head, microcephaly is an abnormality typified by having a small head circumference. This condition is usually obvious at birth, but in some cases it develops in the first couple of years after birth. Because the head is small, the development of the brain is also affected. The degree of mental retardation suffered by children with this disorder ranges from very mild to severe. Though microcephaly has no cure, the symptoms can be treated to improve the child’s quality of life.

Causes of Microcephaly

A small head arises from the fact that the brain did not develop properly. This abnormality in the formation of the brain could happen while still in utero or while the baby is still very young. Abnormal brain development has a number of possible causes, including:

  • Hereditary

Inherited microcephaly is possible but extremely rare. Only about one in 30,000 live births result in genetic microcephaly, compared to one in 10,000 births attributed to other causes.

  • Genetic conditions

Though true hereditary microcephaly is rare, small head circumference together with abnormal brain development resulting from other genetic conditions is possible. Some of these are Trisomy 18, Trisomy 13, Cri-du-chat (cat’s cry) syndrome, 4p- syndrome, Down syndrome, Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome, Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome and Seckel syndrome.

  • Environment

External factors, especially during pregnancy, could influence the development of the fetus’ brain and lead to underdevelopment of the brain and a small head. If the mother is exposed to certain drugs, medications, toxins and viruses while she is pregnant, the child she is carrying may suffer from abnormalities like microcephaly. Exposure to toxoplasma gondi, cytomegalovirus, rubella (virus that causes German measles) and methylmercury are some of the environmental factors that may cause the condition. Alcohol consumption and use of drugs during pregnancy could also do the same. The baby could also develop microcephaly if the mother is severely malnourished during her pregnancy.

  • Complications during childbirth

When the level of oxygen delivered to the fetus’ brain during delivery is low, this may lead the baby to develop microcephaly early in life.

Signs and Symptoms of Microcephaly

Microcephalics, or babies affected with microcephaly, have distinctly smaller heads than their normal counterparts. Those whose condition is hereditary in origin have small heads and facial deformities as the only clear-cut physical signs of the disorder. For those cases resulting from other genetic conditions or environmental factors, the child may exhibit a receding forehead, big nose and large ears in addition to having an undersized head.

Microcephalics often suffer from various kinds of physical and mental developmental problems. Their physical growth is stunted; the speech development is delayed; and the motor skills, like walking, are slow to develop. Some of the affected children likewise suffer from strabismus, spasticity and seizures. Their moods and personalities could be erratic and extreme.

Even so, not all microcephalics manifest these signs and symptoms. There are about ten percent whose brain functions are not affected at all.


Microcephaly could be detected while the fetus is still in the womb during ultrasound. In newborns, the distinct small size of the head, flattened back of the head, closed fontanels, and receding forehead could lead to the diagnosis of the condition. The baby’s growth is closely monitored by the doctor, especially in the first two years of life. One of the parameters routinely measured is the circumference of the head. This is a means to check if the brain is growing normally. The doctor may make a diagnosis if he observes abnormalities in the development and makes further diagnostic procedures.

Treatment and Management

There is no cure for microcephaly. Instead, the treatment is aimed at addressing and managing symptoms and any resulting complications. Those who are fortunate to have no developmental or physical abnormalities need no treatment. On the other hand, microcephalics who have problems with motor functions or speech development could be aided by occupational therapy and speech therapy, respectively. If the child suffers from seizures, mood swings or hyperactivity, drugs could be prescribed to better manage them.

Microcephaly -Prognosis and Life Expectancy

The outlook of children with microcephaly greatly depends on the severity of the condition and its complications. Those who do not have any mental abnormalities lead normal, full lives. Meanwhile, the appropriate therapy, medications and supportive care can significantly improve the quality of life and life expectancy of microcephalics who are severely affected.


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