Is Cerebral Palsy a Genetic Disorder?

Causes of Cerebral Palsy, Cerebral Palsy Diagnosis

Because cerebral palsy (CP) is caused by a brain injury or abnormality that occurs before, during or after birth, parents often wonder if genetics contributed to their child’s neurological disorder. Considering the different cerebral palsy subgroups and how symptoms vary among children, genetics appear to play a larger role in certain types of cerebral palsy than researchers initially realized.

Uncovering the Genetic Link

Medical professionals once believed a lack of oxygen at birth was the only cause of cerebral palsy. While this scenario can certainly result in CP, it isn’t the only contributing factor. In fact, researchers now know a lack of oxygen at birth accounts for approximately 6% of CP cases caused by delivery conditions.

Information collected from the Medical Birth Registry of Norway between 1967 and 2002 provides compelling evidence that CP may be inherited. In the study, researchers found that if parents had twins and one of those children was diagnosed with CP, then the other twin was 15 times more likely to also have CP when compared to the other families in the study. Additionally, the next sibling born after a child with CP was nine times more likely to have the same diagnosis. Half-siblings had a lower chance, but their probability of having CP was still three times higher than average.

Parents’ CP status also influenced whether their children were born with the condition. Researchers found that children were six times more likely to be diagnosed with CP if one parent also had CP.

Based on this clustering effect among families in Norway, the researchers concluded that CP likely has a strong hereditary link either through an unknown genetic vulnerability or unknown environmental factors. Essentially, the closer the child is in relation to someone with CP, the greater that child’s risk of also having the condition.

Is Cerebral Palsy a Genetic Disorder?

Despite compelling evidence that CP could potentially run in families, scientists still don’t have enough data to confidently claim that CP is genetic.

The general consensus is that cerebral palsy itself is not hereditary, but that certain genes and hereditary factors can make a child more likely to develop it. This means that in the Norway study, small genetic influences likely affected individuals within the same family, resulting in multiple CP diagnoses. As such, some children may be predisposed to have CP, and when that predisposition combines with environmental influences, the risk of developing CP increases.

Which Hereditary Factors Should You Watch For?

Many hereditary factors can increase someone’s risk of getting cerebral palsy. These can include microcephaly (when the baby’s head is smaller than average), spasticity (muscle tightening, spasms or stiffening), seizures, or any kind of intellectual impairment. Parents should watch for these traits and consult their child’s pediatrician as soon as anything seems out of the ordinary.

Remember, the brain continues to develop well after birth, and experts disagree about when acquired CP begins. Acquired CP differs from congenital CP in that a child is born without the condition but develops it sometime before the brain fully develops. As such, acquired CP is not inherited. Even so, if a condition such as seizures runs in your family, an infant experiencing a seizure may sustain a brain injury that results in CP.

While you can’t fully prevent congenital CP caused by genetics, you can take actions before, during and after pregnancy to reduce your child’s risk. Before getting pregnant:

  • Practice healthy behaviors, and treat any known infections or health conditions
  • Reduce the chances of multiple pregnancy if using reproductive technology
  • Get vaccinated for diseases that can harm a developing baby

During pregnancy:

  • Schedule early and regular prenatal care
  • Work toward a healthy pregnancy, which includes taking prenatal vitamins and abstaining from alcohol and smoking
  • Protect yourself from serious illness by getting a flu shot
  • Talk to your OBGYN about preventing potential problems if you’re at risk for preterm delivery

After giving birth:

  • Take steps to prevent injuries, such as using a car seat, child-proofing your home, and carefully watching your child around water
  • Have your baby vaccinated against infections
  • Watch for signs of jaundice, as severe jaundice can cause brain damage

Talk to your doctor for more information about keeping your child healthy before, during and after birth.

It’s Not Your Fault

If you’re like most parents of children with CP, you probably ask yourself what you did wrong during pregnancy or whether your genes caused the condition. But in these rare congenital cases, the cause most likely lies in a random and unavoidable genetic mutation.

Far more CP cases occur due to medical mistakes during birth than from genetics. If you think medical malpractice contributed to your child’s condition, the Cerebral Palsy Family Lawyers at Janet, Janet & Suggs can determine if you’re eligible for compensation. Contact us today and let us help your family seek justice.

Was Your Child's CP Preventable?