Possible Causes of Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy consists of a range of non-progressive, non-contagious neurological conditions that affect the brain and nervous system, which then have an impact on human development as well as the individual's movement and coordination.

‘Cerebral’ refers to the area of the brain that is affected, while palsy means complete or partial muscle paralysis. This is also accompanied by a loss of sensation and uncontrollable body movements.

Symptoms and diagnosis

Symptoms vary from child to child, however typical signs include starting to crawl or walk later than others, abnormal muscle tone, difficulty feeding, lying in an awkward position, poor coordination and balance as well as limited movement.

The cerebrum, the affected area of the brain, is also responsible for communication skills, memory and the ability to learn. Damage to this area can also cause issues with vision and hearing.

The NHS estimates that 1 in every 400 children in the UK is affected by the condition and approximately 1,800 babies are diagnosed each year.

Possible causes

Although cerebral palsy is concerned with the individual’s muscles, the main reason behind the condition is damage to the brain before, during or soon after birth.

It was widely believed that damage occurred if the baby was temporarily deprived of oxygen (asphyxia) during birth. If a mother believes she did not receive the correct care and is a victim of clinical negligence, she may be able to receive compensation.

However, researchers have since concluded that asphyxia is only true for 5-10 per cent of babies, with the majority of cases attributed to brain damage before the child was born. There are three main ways in which the brain can be damaged before birth:

Periventricular leukomalacia (PVL)

This refers to damage of the brain's white matter, responsible for directing communication between the organ's thought-processing sections and the rest of the body.

Damage can occur from a reduced blood supply, depriving brain cells of oxygen. In later life, this can have serious consequences because the white matter cannot transmit signals as effectively.

PVL can be caused by:

·         The mother having exceptionally low blood pressure

·         The mother using drugs, particular cocaine, during pregnancy

·         An infection caught by the mother

·         Premature birth, especially at six months or earlier

Abnormal brain development

If the normal development of the brain changes, then the communication of information to muscles may be affected, causing cerebral palsy. The child's brain is most vulnerable during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. Development can be affected by:

·         Gene mutations

·         Trauma or injury to the unborn infant's head

·         Infections such as herpes, toxoplasmosis and cytomegalovirus

Intracranial haemorrhage

A haemorrhage deprives the cerebrum of blood, which can damage or kill brain tissue. This normally occurs if an unborn baby suffers a stroke caused by:

·         The mother having high blood pressure

·         Infection during pregnancy, especially pelvic inflammatory disease

·         Pre-existing weaknesses or abnormalities to the baby's blood vessels

After birth

Damage to the baby's brain after birth, typically during the first few months of development before being able to withstand and adapt to injury, can also cause cerebral palsy. Infections of the brain, such as meningitis, or a traumatic head injury are the main contributing factors.