Conditions + Treatments

Overview of Microcephaly

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Patient with Microcephaly at Boston Children's HospitalMicrocephaly: Alainah's story
16-month-old Alainah of Cape Cod has enrolled in a genetics study to find the cause of her small head size. In the meantime, early interventions are helping her achieve her greatest potential.

What is microcephaly?

When a child has microcephaly, the brain develops abnormally, causing the head to be much smaller than expected for the child's age. ("Micro" means "small," while "cephaly" comes from the Greek word for "head.") These complications can also lead to problems with a child's cognitive abilities and neurological functions.

However, it's important to know that while a small brain may not catch up to normal size, early intervention (such as physical, speech and occupational therapy) can encourage brain connections to grow, allowing a child to achieve and enjoy an optimal quality of life.

Microcephaly in Child

Some other key facts about microcephaly:

  • Microcephaly is often congenital – meaning present at birth – but can also occur later during infancy.
  • Some cases can be caused by prenatal exposure to viruses such as Zika, especially during the first trimester of pregnancy.
  • Many cases are genetic; in fact, several hundred genes have been linked with microcephaly.
  • Microcephaly is relatively rare, affecting about 25,000 children in the U.S. each year, or 2 to 12 babies per 10,000 live-born infants.
  • Microcephaly may occur alone, or it can be associated with another medical problem.
  • Microcephaly often (but not always) causes learning disabilities and other neurological issues.
  • Head size doesn't always predict the degree of disability (if any).
"Sometimes we see strikingly abnormal MRIs, but the child is doing much better than you would expect." 
Ganeshwaran Mochida, MD, child neurologist specializing in microcephaly  

Will my child with microcephaly be OK?

Your child’s exact prognosis depends on her specific symptoms and circumstances, but you should know that head size and even a brain MRI don’t always predict how a child will do.

Also, while microcephaly cannot be cured altogether, interventions focused on your child’s behavioral and cognitive development can help new brain connections grow, even if the brain remains small. Not every child experiences neurological complications, and even in the most severe cases, there are treatment options that can help your child feel and function better.

Can microcephaly be prevented?

When microcephaly is genetic, it cannot be prevented, but if your child is believed to have a genetic cause of her microcephaly, genetic counseling can be very helpful as you plan to add to your family. Genetic testing can help determine whether the mutation is inherited and the likelihood that future children could be affected.

Mothers living in areas where Zika virus is prevalent should avoid being bitten by mosquitos (using repellant, etc.). Some health authorities are also suggesting that women in Zika-affected areas postpone pregnancy until the Zika outbreak is contained.

Expectant mothers can also lessen their chances of having a baby with microcephaly by avoiding the use or abuse of drugs or alcohol, staying well nourished and avoiding exposure to toxic chemicals and other viruses that can cause microcephaly.

Care for microcephaly at Boston Children's Hospital

Boston Children’s has a long and distinguished history of caring for children with brain and nervous system disorders. Clinicians in our Department of Neurology and Department of Neurosurgery are regarded as international leaders in understanding and treating rare conditions like microcephaly. Our Fetal-Neonatal Neurology Program also specializes in diagnosing, studying and managing microcephaly and other conditions that affect newborns' a broad spectrum of other conditions that affect newborns’ brains. 

Our microcephaly care team includes:

  • neurologists, doctors with extensive training in diseases of the nervous system
  • developmental psychologists, who study the mental and behavioral health changes children experience as they grow
  • geneticists and genetic counselors who can provide testing to see if the microcephaly has a genetic cause
  • nurses with significant experience in the neurosciences
  • social workers, who provide counseling and offer emotional and psychosocial support

Our care also has a research component. Physicians and scientists in our Brain Development and Genetics Clinic are working hard to understand how and why microcephaly develops, in hopes of one day introducing new therapies. The clinic is actively enrolling patients to understand the effects of different genetic mutations that cause microcephaly.

5 things to know about microcephaly - download the PDF.

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- Sandra L. Fenwick, President and CEO

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