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Hydrocephalus that is congenital (present at birth) is thought to be caused by a complex interaction of genetic and environmental factors. Aqueductal stenosis, an obstruction of the cerebral aqueduct, is the most frequent cause of congenital hydrocephalus. As of 2001, the genetic factors are not well understood. According to the British Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus, in very rare circumstances, hydrocephalus is due to hereditary factors, which might affect future generations.
Hydrocephalus is believed to occur in approximately 1–2 of every 1,000 live births. The incidence of adult onset hydrocephalus is not known. There is no known way to prevent hydrocephalus.
Signs and symptoms of elevated-pressure hydrocephalus include:
Irritability is the most common sign of hydrocephalus in infants. If this is not treated, it may lead to lethargy. Bulging of the fontanelles, or the soft spots between the skull bones, may also be an early sign. When hydrocephalus occurs in infants, fusion of the skull bones is prevented. This leads to abnormal expansion of the skull.
Imaging studies—x ray, computed tomography scan (CT scan), ultrasound, and especially magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)—are used to assess the presence and location of obstructions, as well as changes in brain tissue that have occurred as a result of the hydrocephalus. Lumbar puncture (spinal tap) may be performed to aid in determining the cause when infection is suspected.
The primary method of treatment for both elevated and normal pressure hydrocephalus is surgical installation of a shunt. A shunt is a tube connecting the ventricles of the brain to an alternative drainage site, usually the abdominal cavity. A shunt contains a one-way valve to prevent reverse flow of fluid. In some cases of noncommunicating hydrocephalus, a direct connection can be made between one of the ventricles and the subarachnoid space, allowing drainage without a shunt.
Installation of a shunt requires lifelong monitoring by the recipient or family members for signs of recurring hydrocephalus due to obstruction or failure of the shunt. Other than monitoring, no other management activity is usually required.
Some drugs may postpone the need for surgery by inhibiting the production of CSF. These include acetazolamide
Some cases of elevated pressure hydrocephalus may be avoided by preventing or treating the infectious diseases which precede them. Prenatal diagnosis of congenital brain malformation is often possible.
Author Info: L. Fleming Fallon Jr., MD, DrPH, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Genetic Disorders Part I, 2002
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