Microcephaly is is a condition that causes the head circumference to be much smaller than average size. This is due to a limitation of growth or development of the brain, and the condition may either be present at birth, or may develop within the first few years of life. There are a number of syndromes and disorders that may cause microcephaly as a symptom. Prognosis varies, but often life expectancy is reduced and individuals will experience poor brain functionality.

Symptoms of Microcephaly

Microcephaly itself is simply described as a head circumference that is at least two standard deviations smaller than average, based on age and gender. Other symptoms normally depend upon which condition is responsible for the root cause and the severity of this condition. While children with microcephaly may be of normal intelligence and simply rate below average on the standard growth charts, it is likely that other symptoms will persist. Following is a brief list of symptoms commonly present alongside microcephaly:

  • normal facial growth, leading to wrinkled facial skin and a protruding forehead
  • mental retardation
  • dwarfism
  • hyperactivity
  • delay in motor skill development
  • delayed speech
  • abnormal facial features
  • problems with balance and coordination
  • convulsions or seizures
  • neurological abnormalities

Causes of Microcephaly

There are many causes of microcephaly, and most commonly it is the result of one of several genetic disorders than can affect certain chromosomes. Down's syndrome is one example, and any other chromosomal or neurometabolic syndromes may lead to this condition. Any genetic abnormality that is present or develops during early fetal development can limit growth of the cerebral cortex, which discourages the head to grow at a normal rate. Other factors can contribute to this condition as well. During pregnancy, the abuse of drugs or alcohol, exposure to toxic chemicals or the presence of certain viruses or infections can lead to abnormal fetal development, potentially causing microcephaly.

Diagnosis of Microcephaly

A diagnosis of microcephaly will be recommended for children who are born with an abnormally small head or who fail to show proper growth of the head and brain during the early years. Because of the fact that microcephaly is often, itself, a symptom of a more severe and life-altering disorder, further testing and evaluation will likely be performed to determine the presence of genetic disorders and other underlying physical or emotional concerns.

Treatment for Microcephaly

Since there is no cure for microcephaly, treatment options are aimed at supportive care of other symptoms which may present themselves. It's likely that a significant amount of testing will reveal another disorder or syndrome which may be present, and care will depend upon the results. Many children born with this disorder have limited intellect and experience possible behavioral problems. It's important to determine the root cause and treat each symptom appropriately as it surfaces. Following is a list of possible treatment options, depending upon which syndrome is present:

  • Physical therapy can help with motor skills and encourage proper use of limbs.
  • Behavioral therapy can reduce problems associated with irritability, low self-esteem and hyperactivity.
  • Surgery may be recommended if cardiovascular or respiratory problems are evident.
  • Medication may be available to prevent symptoms of emotional conditions or mental disorders which result from loss of brain usage. Specifically, seizures, hyperactivity and neuromuscular symptoms may be prevented.
  • Occupational therapy may benefit older children or adults suffering microcephaly. This type of therapy encourages interaction within social and work environments, teaching necessary skills for life and jobs.
  • Genetic counseling may be available for families with concerns about abnormalities with subsequent pregnancies.
  • Ongoing research studies may benefit certain candidates by testing for treatment options which may result in a positive outcome.