Spina Bifida (Neural Tube Defect)

Can spina bifida be prevented?

Folic acid, also called folate, is an important vitamin in the development of a healthy fetus. Although taking this vitamin cannot guarantee having a healthy baby, it can help. Studies have shown that by adding folic acid to their diets, women of childbearing age significantly reduce their risk of having a child with a neural tube defect such as spina bifida. Therefore, it is recommended that all women of childbearing age consume 400 micrograms of folic acid daily. Foods high in folic acid include dark green vegetables, egg yolks, and some fruits. Many foods -- such as some breakfast cereals, enriched breads, flours, pastas, rice, and other grain products -- are now fortified with folic acid. Most multivitamins contain this recommended dosage of folic acid.

Women who have a child with spina bifida, have spina bifida themselves, or have already had a pregnancy affected by any neural tube defect are at greater risk (anywhere from five to 10 percent of the general population) of having a child with spina bifida or another neural tube defect. These women may benefit from taking a higher daily dose of folic acid before they become pregnant.

What is the prognosis for spina bifida?

Children with spina bifida can lead relatively active lives. Prognosis, activity, and participation depends on the number and severity of abnormalities and associated personal and environmental factors. Many children with the disorder have normal intelligence and can walk, usually with assistive devices. If learning problems develop, early educational intervention is helpful.

What research is being done on spina bifida?

Within the Federal Government, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), supports and conducts research on brain and nervous system disorders, including spina bifida. NINDS conducts research in its laboratories at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland, and supports research through grants to medical research institutions across the country.

In one study supported by NINDS, scientists are looking at the hereditary basis of neural tube defects. The goal of this research is to find the genetic factors that make some children more susceptible to neural tube defects than others. Lessons learned from this research may fill in gaps of knowledge about the causes of neural tube defects and may lead to ways to prevent these disorders. These researchers are also studying gene expression during the process of neural tube closure, which will provide information on the human nervous system during development.

In addition, NINDS-supported scientists are working to identify, characterize, and evaluate genes for neural tube defects. The goal is to understand the genetics of neural tube closure, and to develop information that will translate into improved clinical care, treatment, and genetic counseling.

Other scientists are studying genetic risk factors for spina bifida, especially those that diminish or lessen the .function of folic acid in the mother during pregnancy, possibly leading to spina bifida in the fetus. This study will shed light on how folic acid prevents spina bifida and may lead to improved forms of folate supplements.

NINDS also supports and conducts a wide range of basic research studies to understand how the brain and nervous system develop. These studies contribute to a greater understanding of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, and offer hope for new avenues of treatment for and prevention of these disorders as well as other birth defects.

Another component of the NIH, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), is conducting a school-age follow-up assessment of prenatal vs. postnatal repair of myelomeningocele. The MOMS2 study, a continuation of the Management of Myelomeningocele Study, will better establish which procedure is best for intelligence and bladder and bowel outcome years after the surgery. Researchers hope this study, called the Management of Myelomeningocele Study, or MOMS, will better establish which procedure -- prenatal or postnatal -- is best for the baby.


"Spina Bifida." National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Sept. 2013.

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