Microcephaly, a medical condition characterized by an abnormally small head in affected individuals, often has other complications. This is not always the case as the only sign some children have is a reduced head circumference. However, depending on the severity and reasons behind microcephaly, the new born baby or child may have other medical challenges to deal with. Babies with the condition often make high pitched crying sounds and may not be able to feed properly. Some children also experience difficulty in swallowing food.
Many people with the condition may suffer from a brain disorder because the brain has not developed properly. The reasons for this can be varied. Sometimes chromosomal abnormalities prevent the brain from developing as expected. A mutation in the microcephalin genes that are responsible for normal fetal development could be a reason.
Image Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities).
Children affected by microcephaly may often be diagnosed with intellectual disabilities. This can be defined as an IQ below 70. On average this can affect about 2 – 3 % of the general population. For example, patients with Down’s syndrome and other syndromic conditions can have microcephaly and are also prone to syndromic intellectual disabilities.
Depending on the individual patient’s case, learning difficulties can present in several different ways:
Speech delays - Some infants have a delayed ability to speak. They take longer to form words and learn a language than that expected for their age. The infant may need to see a speech therapist.
Social rules - There may be some difficulty in understanding how society operates due to impaired brain function.
Memory skills - The patients’ ability to retain information may be stunted and hinder their ability to carry out other tasks and day-to-day activities.
Problem-solving skills - The patients can have limited ability to work out problems as the development of their brain is hampered.
Self-care abilities - The child is likely to need more help in looking after themselves than other infants of similar age. The patients will need more supervision to carry out tasks to look after themselves.
Lack of social inhibitors - The developing young person will not always understand or express social inhibition that others may have at a similar age.
Difficulty with movement - The child may develop physical mobility issues due to spasticity. Their coordination and balance may be impacted and they may need to undergo physiotherapy to help them use their limbs more easily.
Children with microcephaly may not reach the recommended average height and may be of short stature or exhibit dwarfism. There can often be a genetic reason for this.
Hearing and sight problems
An underdeveloped brain can also impact the development of hearing and sight in children with microcephaly.
Children with microcephaly may tend to have differences in their facial features which are linked to the reduced size of the head. The child may have a backward sloping forehead.
A patient with microcephaly is also more prone to seizures due to incomplete brain development.
Reviewed by Susha Cheriyedath, MSc