What is Microcephaly, in babies, causes, symptoms, has a cure?


What is microcephaly?

Microcephaly is a condition in which the child’s brain and head are smaller than expected for age. The size of the cranial box prevents the brain from growing normally.

The condition is usually noticeable at birth and is defined, when delivery takes place at 9 months of gestation , by the perimeter of the head of 32 cm or less. The normal perimeter is between 33 and 36 cm at the time of birth, although it may be smaller when the birth is premature. Therefore, in these cases, there are adaptations of the measure.

Normally, babies are born with the fontanelle, called the soft spot . It is a soft spot on the child’s head. The skull is made up of several bones that come together between 9 and 15 months of age. They are separated to facilitate childbirth, to allow them to move, and to create space for the growth of the brain during pregnancy and in the first months of the child’s life.

Although not the only reason for the condition, most cases of microcephaly happen when the fontanelle closes prematurely, preventing brain growth from happening properly, creating internal pressure in the skull.

The earlier this bone closure occurs, the less space the brain has to grow and the more severe microcephaly.


Microcephaly can be congenital or acquired , in addition to primary and secondary . In congenital microcephaly, the baby is born with a reduced head circumference. In acquired, microcephaly develops in the first years of life through reduced growth.

Primary microcephaly

This type of microcephaly is called true microcephaly. It is a genetic, autosomal recessive condition. This means that both parents must have the condition gene and pass it on to the child for microcephaly.

More rarely, it is also possible for the child to present the genetic mutation at random, without inheriting the condition of the parents.

Secondary microcephaly

Representing 90% of cases, secondary microcephaly is caused by conditions other than genetics. The most common of these is microcephaly due to craniosynostosis . It is when the cranial box closes ahead of time, preventing normal growth of the brain.

Closure can happen at any time during pregnancy, but it is more common in the first three months, which makes the condition quite serious.

When it is acquired , diseases that affect the baby usually cause the softener to close before its time. When it is congenital , it is usually caused by conditions of the mother that affect pregnancy.


The causes are several and can vary according to the type of microcephaly. In general, it is caused by infections of the mother during pregnancy, in addition to other harmful behaviors that the mother can adopt.

Congenital microcephaly

This type of pregnancy begins its development during pregnancy. Through prenatal ultrasound, it is possible to identify microcephaly in children. The main causes are:


One of the main causes of microcephaly due to craniosynostosis, infections are a major concern. In particular rubella , cytomegalovirus, toxoplasmosis and Zika virus are linked to the condition.

Abuse of alcohol and other drugs

Use of various drugs by pregnant women can lead to microcephaly in the child. Alcohol, methyl mercury, aminopterin, pyriproxifene, cocaine and heroin are known causes of the condition, causing the baby’s skull bones to close before their time.


When not properly controlled, the mother’s diabetes can cause microcephaly in the child.


If the mother has hypothyroidism, there is a possibility that microcephaly will occur in the child.

Pre eclampsia

Caused by high blood pressure, pre-eclampsia is a risk for pregnancy and can cause the child’s growth to be reduced, including in the brain.

Placental insufficiency

Like pre-eclampsia , this condition can slow a child’s growth. Any condition that causes problems for fetal growth can lead to microcephaly.

Maternal phenylketonuria

Genetic disease that prevents or hinders the metabolism of phenylalanine, maternal phenylketonuria can cause developmental problems in the baby, including cardiac malformation and, of course, microcephaly.

Genetic abnormalities

Genetic problems can cause primary microcephaly, and can be caused by random mutation or inherited from parents.

Among the genetic diseases that cause microcephaly are Patau Syndrome, Edwards Syndrome, trisomy of the short arm of chromosome 4, Wolf-Hirschhorn Syndrome, Cri du Chat Syndrome (cat’s meow) and several other diseases.

Exposure to radiation

Radiation can cause several problems in the DNA, and these problems can be passed on to the children. In this case, even if the mother or father is exposed years before pregnancy, there is a risk of microcephaly in addition to several other diseases.

Acquired microcephaly

This type of microcephaly develops during the child’s first years of life. Because of several factors, the skull or brain may not develop properly. It can be caused by:

Metabolism disorders

If the baby’s metabolism has a disorder, such as infantile hypothyroidism , it can lead to microcephaly because it affects the child’s growth.

Intracranial infections

Meningitis and encephalitis can cause microcephaly in children.

Copper poisoning

Copper poisoning can act on the brain, causing it to slow down in growth.

Chronic childhood anemia

Lack of iron can affect the child’s growth, leading, in some cases, to microcephaly.


Strokes and trauma can cause brain problems, including microcephaly in babies that are yet to grow. Although rare and more common in the elderly, strokes can happen in babies.

Microcephaly in Brazil

In 2015, the Zika virus, transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito , was the cause of a microcephaly epidemic in northeastern Brazil. There was a big increase in the number of cases and it became mandatory to report the new incidences of the condition. In the same year, the Ministry of Health confirmed the connection between microcephaly and Zika virus infection.

Microcephaly and Zika

The Zika virus does not cause major problems for people already born, but it is able to cross the uterine and placental wall, multiplying in the amniotic fluid, being present in the central nervous system of the fetus, which influences the brain’s development.

The virus is also capable of affecting the child’s bone growth while still inside the uterus. The skull is shaped into a shape and size that does not allow space for the development of the brain.

Risk factors

Several causes for microcephaly mean that there is no specific risk group and that anyone can fall victim to the condition. However, some factors can increase the chances that microcephaly will affect a baby.

Substance use in pregnancy

Use of alcohol, cocaine, aminopterin (a medicine used to treat leukemia ), heroin and other drugs during pregnancy are known to cause microcephaly in babies. Other substances can have the same effect.

Diseases in the mother

Some maternal diseases can be the cause of microcephaly. Diabetes, hypothyroidism, pre- eclampsia , phenylketonuria and placental insufficiency are some of the conditions that can cause impairment in the development of the baby’s brain and skull.

Genetic causes

DNA functions as a set of instructions for building the body. It is because of him that the baby is born with two eyes side by side instead of on the cheeks, it is the DNA that says that the arms should be on the side of the body and not in front and behind.

An error in DNA can cause an error in the baby’s construction, including the size of the skull and brain. Genetic flaws can lead to microcephaly.

These flaws can be natural mutations, but they can also be caused by radiation. Even if the mother is exposed to radiation before becoming pregnant, her eggs can have her DNA altered and this can cause genetic diseases in her future children.


One of the main causes of microcephaly, rubella infections , toxoplasmosis, cytomegalovirus and Zika virus are great risks during pregnancy, especially during the first trimester, in which they can cause major problems in the development of the fetus.

If there is a risk of contracting some of these diseases during pregnancy, it is very important to go to the doctor.


The main symptom is the reduced size of the head , which hinders the development of the brain. This can cause several other consequences such as:

Intellectual deficit

In cases where the condition is primary, intellectual reduction is not common, but these represent only 10% of the cases of microcephaly. The other 90% have a severe intellectual deficit due to reduced brain size.

Muscle spasms

Muscle spasms are common in patients with microcephaly. This symptom is one of those that raises suspicion of acquired microcephaly or a mild version of the congenital, since in these cases the baby does not show a large change in the size of the skull and the condition may go unnoticed.


Like spasms, seizures are common in patients with microcephaly.

Motor problems

Difficulty in balancing, walking, keeping your head up, picking up things and other motor problems may be present in patients with microcephaly, as a result of reduced brain size and intracranial pressure.

Sensory difficulties

The child’s senses can be affected by brain reduction. Vision and hearing may be impaired by the condition.

Development issues

In addition to the brain, the limbs and other parts of the body may suffer to develop normally when microcephaly exists. Stunting can be caused by reduced development due to the condition

Language problems

The development of speech and understanding can be hindered by microcephaly.

Learning difficulties

Learning can be difficult for children with microcephaly


Hyperactivity can be caused by microcephaly.

Altered features

Although the skull is smaller, the face is not. Because of this, there may be leftover skin during growth, as well as the features appear strange and disproportionate. The forehead is projected backwards and the ears appear very large.

How is microcephaly diagnosed?

Microcephaly can be diagnosed by measuring the circumference of the baby’s head with a tape measure, made by the neurologist, general practitioner and pediatrician.

During the child’s first years of life, the measurement is made several times and compared with the age standard. In addition, some tests can be done for prenatal identification and classification of the severity of the condition:


Ultrasound can be used to identify microcephaly during pregnancy. Suspicion can be confirmed after birth by measuring.

Computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging

Both methods are ways of displaying the brain in detail. These imaging tests are used to diagnose the severity of a microcephaly confirmed by measuring the circumference.

The test can identify which areas of the brain are affected and to what extent.

Is Microcephaly Curable?

Microcephaly has no cure  and, even when discovered in pregnancy, it is irreversible. However, it is possible to monitor the child to reduce the negative effects of the condition.

What is the treatment?


There is no treatment for curing microcephaly, but some actions can be taken to reduce the effects of the condition on metal development.


There is a type of surgery capable of slightly separating the skull bones in the first two months of life. This allows the brain to have a little more space to grow.

It is possible that the child has hydrocephalus (accumulation of cerebral cerebrospinal fluid in the brain, causing pressure increase) next to the microcephaly, and surgery can also be done to place a brain drain, relieving this pressure.


There are medications that can reduce the effects of microcephaly on the body, reducing muscle spasms and muscle tension.


Physiotherapy is indicated because it helps the child’s motor development. The more stimulated it is, the better. It is recommended to carry out as many physiotherapy sessions as possible in order to have a good development for the child.

Occupational therapy

Through occupational therapy, the child can learn how to live with his surroundings despite his physical and mental deficiencies. With enough stimulation early in life, your cognitive level can be improved and your problems caused by microcephaly can be reduced dramatically.


Botox injections can be recommended to reduce involuntary muscle contractions, in addition to being positive for physiotherapy sessions and facilitating daily care.

Medicines for microcephaly

Microcephaly cannot be treated by medication, but some of its symptoms can, such as spasms and seizures. The Unified Health System (SUS), in Brazil, provides some medications free of charge for the treatment of symptoms, such as Levetiracetam  ( Keppra ).


NEVER self-medicate or stop using a medication without first consulting a doctor. Only he will be able to tell which medication, dosage and duration of treatment is the most suitable for his specific case. The information contained in this website is only intended to inform, not in any way intended to replace the guidance of a specialist or serve as a recommendation for any type of treatment. Always follow the instructions on the package insert and, if symptoms persist, seek medical or pharmaceutical advice.

Living together

Living with microcephaly is not easy, neither for the child nor for the parents. Right at birth, the child already needs special treatments, which are more intense the more severe the condition is. However, coexistence is possible.

Frequent queries

Monthly consultation with a neuropediatrician is recommended to monitor the condition. It is possible to know what kind of progression is taking place, if growth is severely impaired, what complications can be expected and what types of treatments can be done.

The frequency of consultations is necessary, especially in the first years of life, as brain growth occurs fast and conditions can change just as quickly.

Occupational therapy

Occupational therapy is important because it presents several varied stimuli for the child, which may have its development improved because of this. Intellectual and motor growth can be facilitated through occupational therapy, which is one of the main treatments for the condition.

Multidisciplinary service

Several types of therapy are recommended to improve the quality of life of the microcephaly patient, aiming to teach and stimulate the child in several areas so that his / her development is better and he / she can grow up to live in society.

Psychological treatment

Caring for a child with microcephaly is not easy. Parents may need psychological treatment to deal with the difficulties they will face. The same applies to the child.

Although, in the most severe cases, microcephaly can lead to death, it will not necessarily do so. Growing up, the patient may develop psychological problems as a result of the condition and the difficulties caused by it. He may feel guilty, have problems with self-esteem, depression , among many other conditions.


Unfortunately, there is no way to reverse microcephaly. The level of development depends on the severity of the condition. Through a lot of stimulation, the child can have a life close to normal, if the reduction in the circumference of the head is not very large.

Stimulation is very important when microcephaly is severe, as this can facilitate patient care in the years to come.

It is important that there is medical and psychological monitoring, both for the child and for her parents, who face the challenge of microcephaly.


The symptoms of microcephaly can lead to several complications, which vary in intensity. It all depends on the severity of the condition. The smaller the circumference of the child’s head, the more serious the complications.


Due to the symptoms of the condition and complications in the quality of life, the patient may develop depression, feel guilty about the difficulties that the parents go through and have problems with self-esteem.

Neurological and intellectual losses

The reduction of the brain brings several neurological and intellectual losses. Patients have learning, developmental difficulties, as well as motor and sensory problems.


In the most severe cases of the condition, the patient may die as a result of the symptoms, either as a baby or as a child.


If there is no stimulation for the child with microcephaly, even in not so severe cases, he can grow and become extremely dependent on his parents for everything. Stimulation serves to make development happen, and without it, parental care may be needed for life.

Little physical development

Weight loss, dwarfism and lack of development of the body, not just the brain, can be consequences of microcephaly.

How to prevent microcephaly?

Most of the time, it is possible to prevent microcephaly or, at least, to drastically reduce the chances of it occurring.

Pre and neonatal follow-up

Keeping the mother and baby healthy is important to prevent diseases and conditions that can cause microcephaly from setting in. Remember that the condition can arise even after birth.

Genetic counseling

If microcephaly is genetic, genetic counseling can help. Through it, the geneticist doctor can explain what genetic changes exist and show the best options for the couple. Among them, there is assisted reproduction, which makes the implantation of sperm in the egg after the selection of genetically healthy cells.

Stay away from alcohol during pregnancy

Alcoholism during pregnancy is a cause of microcephaly, in addition to several other diseases. Do not drink while you are pregnant.

Do not use drugs during pregnancy

Several drugs can cause microcephaly and other diseases in the fetus.

Do not use medications without medical advice

Many medications can affect fetal development. To avoid any problems during pregnancy, talk to your doctor before using any medication.

Avoid infections

Staying away from people with a fever can be a good idea, as fever is often a sign of infection and many of them can cause fetal changes. The rubella , for example, cause microcephaly.

Avoid mosquitoes

The Zika virus, transmitted by the  Aedes aegypti mosquito , causes microcephaly. Using repellents and protective screens can prevent infection by this and other viruses transmitted by the insect.

Avoid leaving standing water to prevent the reproduction of the mosquito that transmits the Zika virus and other diseases.

Microcephaly is a serious condition with no cure, which brings great difficulties for both parents and children, but it is possible to live with it. Share this text with your friends so that they learn more about this condition!