Spina bifida (pronounced SPAHY-nuh BIF-i-duh) is a neural tube defect that frequently occurs in families. Spina bifida occurs because of an abnormality of the development of the spinal cord that occurs in the first trimester of pregnancy. Within the first 4 weeks after a fetus is conceived, the backbone and membranes that cover and protect the spinal cord and spine do not form and close properly. This can result in an opening anywhere along the spine and may cause damage to the spinal cord and nerves. The defect may be associated with a protrusion of the membrane covering the spinal cord (meninges) alone, called a meningocele, or with some neural elements, called a meningomyelocele. Or the defect may not be noticed until later in life.
The NICHD plays a leading role, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in distributing federal funding for spina bifida research. NICHD-supported scientists are investigating genetic, neurological, and environmental variables that cause spina bifida or that influence neurobehavioral outcomes for children with spina bifida. These scientists also are assessing spina bifida's effects on physical and cognitive development in early childhood, developing new diagnostic ultrasound techniques, and studying the advantages of in utero (pronounced in-YOO-tuh-roh, in the uterus) spinal cord repair for infants with spina bifida.
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