Surely one of the most terrifying sights to await a woman giving birth is a baby with anencephaly: a frightening birth defect in which parts of the brain and skull fail to form correctly. The result is a fetus or baby that has a normal-appearing body attached to a frog-like head. I can imagine that women giving birth to such a child back in the middle ages would have been burned at the stake or otherwise executed for this evidence of copulation with devils! Fortunately, we live in more enlightened times... but, as you can see, these are still frightening times!

Anencephaly occurs surprisingly frequently - 1/1000 births. (Which is one reason why it always amazes me that pregnant women don't spend their days in constant anxiety of the monster that may come crawling out from between their legs... but that's just me, I suppose.) To make matters worse, if a woman gives birth to a baby with anencephaly, their odds of having another one goes up to 1/50, and if they've had two 1/25. And if they've had three, why on earth are they still procreating????

Anencephaly occurs when the anterior neural tube fails to close properly very early in fetal development. The neural tube is a narrow channel that folds and closes between the 3rd and 4th weeks of pregnancy to form the brain and spinal cord of the embryo. Anencephaly occurs when the "cephalic" or head end of the neural tube fails to close, resulting in the absence of a major portion of the brain, skull, and scalp. Infants with this disorder are born without a forebrain (the front part of the brain) and a cerebrum (the thinking and coordinating part of the brain). The remaining brain tissue is often exposed--not covered by bone or skin. A baby born with anencephaly is usually blind, deaf, unconscious, and unable to feel pain. Although some individuals with anencephaly may be born with a rudimentary brain stem, the lack of a functioning cerebrum permanently rules out the possibility of ever gaining consciousness. Reflex actions such as breathing and responses to sound or touch may occur. (In other words, these babies are as much "alive" as Terry Schiavo!)

Although it is thought that a mother's diet and vitamin intake may play a role, scientists believe that many other factors are also involved. Recent studies have shown that the addition of folic acid (vitamin B9) to the diet of women of childbearing age may significantly reduce the incidence of neural tube defects.

Unsurprisingly, there is no cure or treatment for anencephaly. Most of the babies are stillborn, and the rest will die within a few hours or days after birth. Thank goodness, eh?

The information and photographs above were mercilessly swiped from the following fine websites:
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Stonybrook University Hospital

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