Spina bifida is a relatively common birth defect, affecting about 1,500 to 2,000 babies born in the US each year and around 700 in the UK annually.
Babies born with spina bifida have improperly formed spines and spinal cords.
During development these structures – along with the brain – all arise out of something called a neural tube, a precursor the entire central nervous system as well as the protective tissues that form around them.
Typically, this tube forms and closes by the 28th week of pregnancy.
But in babies with spina bifida, it doesn’t close properly, for reasons that are not entirely clear yet to scientists.
Instead, these babies are left with a gap in the vertebrae, through which part of the spinal cord may slip, depending the severity.
People with the mildest form of spina bifida – the occulta form – may not even know they have it.
The gap between their vertebrae is so small that the spinal cord stays in place and they are unlikely to experience any kind of neurological or motor symptoms.
In the next more severe form of the condition, called meningocele, the the protective fluid and membranes around the spinal cord are pulled through a gap into a fluid filled sack on the exterior of the baby’s back.
There’s no actual nervous tissue out of place, so there may be complications, but they’re less likely to be life altering.
But in open spina bifida, or myelomeningocele, there are larger or multiple openings along the spine.
Both the membranes and spinal nerves and tissues they’re meant to protect are pulled outside the baby at birth.
The symptoms vary wildly based on where and how severe these openings are.
Some children may develop little more than skin problems, while other with severe forms may be unable to walk or move properly, or develop infections like meningitis that can leave them with permanent brain damage.
Making sure women get plenty of folic acid in pregnancy can help ensure the spinal cord develops properly.
After birth, surgery to repair these openings may be performed and, in more recent years, some surgeons have begun repairing spina bifida in the womb.