The human nervous system develops from a small, specialized plate of cells
along the back of an embryo. Early in development, the edges of this plate begin to curl
up toward each other, creating the neural tubea narrow sheath that closes to form
the brain and spinal cord of the embryo. As development progresses, the top of the tube
becomes the brain and the remainder becomes the spinal cord. This process is usually
complete by the 28th day of pregnancy. But if problems occur during this process, the
result can be brain disorders called neural tube defects, including spina bifida.
What is spina bifida?
Spina bifida, which literally means cleft spine, is
characterized by the incomplete development of the brain, spinal cord, and/or meninges
(the protective covering around the brain and spinal cord). It is the most common neural
tube defect in the United Statesaffecting 1,500 to 2,000 of the more than 4 million
babies born in the country each year.
What are the different types of spina bifida?
There are four types of spina bifida: occulta, closed neural tube defects,
meningocele, and myelomeningocele.
Occulta is the mildest and most common form in which one or more vertebrae are malformed.
The name occulta, which means hidden, indicates that the
malformation, or opening in the spine, is covered by a layer of skin. This form of spina
bifida rarely causes disability or symptoms.
Closed neural tube defects make up the second type of spina bifida. This form consists of
a diverse group of spinal defects in which the spinal cord is marked by a malformation of
fat, bone, or membranes. In some patients there are few or no symptoms; in others the
malformation causes incomplete paralysis with urinary and bowel dysfunction.
In the third type, meningocele, the meninges protrude from the spinal opening, and the
malformation may or may not be covered by a layer of skin. Some patients with meningocele
may have few or no symptoms while others may experience symptoms similar to closed neural
Myelomeningocele, the fourth form, is the most severe and occurs when the spinal cord is
exposed through the opening in the spine, resulting in partial or complete paralysis of
the parts of the body below the spinal opening. The paralysis may be so severe that the
affected individual is unable to walk and may have urinary and bowel dysfunction.