Is Cerebral Palsy a Neurodevelopmental Disorder?

Birth Injury, Causes of Cerebral Palsy, Cerebral Palsy Information

Newborn with overlay of red brain behind construction barrier that reads Neurological Construction Interrupted

Neurodevelopmental disorders are primarily associated with the brain and neurological system’s functioning, resulting in disability. Children with neurodevelopmental disorders such as cerebral palsy may have difficulties with motor skills, speech, language, memory, learning, behavior, and other neurological functions.

Why Is Cerebral Palsy a Neurodevelopmental Disorder?

Cerebral palsy (CP) is considered a neurodevelopmental disorder because it affects the brain’s development and function, causing varying degrees of lifelong disability. “Cerebral” refers to the brain, and “palsy” to energy or action deprivation, the latter of which describes the damaged parts of the brain that control purposeful movement, balance and muscle coordination.

Many cases of CP are the result of injury to a fetus’s or newborn’s brain due to inadequate prenatal care, accidents, lack of oxygen during delivery, or medical malpractice. People with CP might experience muscle spasms, tightness, gait disturbances, involuntary movements, and mobility challenges. They may also have abnormal perceptions and sensations, speech impairment, trouble swallowing or eating, difficulty breathing, lack of bladder or bowel control, poor posture, and learning disabilities.

Examples of Neurodevelopmental Disorders

Neurodevelopmental disorders begin in early childhood. Cerebral palsy, for instance, occurs from brain damage or malformation sustained before, during, or after birth—before the brain has finished developing vital neurological pathways. Individuals with these disorders may have limits in their executive functions, learning, intelligence, or social skills.

Other common examples of neurodevelopmental disorders include:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Learning disorders
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

According to a study published by the European Journal of Paediatric Neurology, ADHD and ASD are more common among individuals with cerebral palsy than the general population. More studies on the prevalence of ADHD and ASD in children with cerebral palsy could significantly improve their therapies, treatment, and overall daily living. The researchers concluded, however, that we need more scientific data to support these services and to better define the relationship between functional abilities, CP subtypes, and other disorders.

Are Neurodevelopmental Disorders Genetic?

Genetics can play a role in neurodevelopmental disorders such as ASD and ADHD. Even certain types of learning or intellectual disabilities can have genetic factors. Most neurodevelopmental disorders, however, are complex and have multiple contributors rather than a single cause.

Risk factors that can affect neurodevelopment include:

  • Maternal alcohol, tobacco, or drug use
  • Preterm birth
  • Lower socioeconomic status
  • Low birth weight
  • Prenatal or childhood exposure to contaminants

Multiple studies have shown that lead, polychlorinated biphenyls, and methylmercury can have adverse effects on a child’s brain and nervous system development. Exposure to an environmental factor such as lead can reduce cognitive function, lower intelligence, and impair a child’s academic achievement.

While neurodevelopmental disorders are multifaceted, with both environmental and genetic contributors, cerebral palsy typically results from a single incident that causes brain damage. An individual’s genetics can predispose him or her to cerebral palsy due to a brain malformation, but the condition itself is not hereditary.

What Causes Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral palsy results from a birth injury, brain injury, or brain malformation that occurs at any point from when a baby is developing in the womb until the child is around two or three years old.

Every cerebral palsy case is different, but common causes include:

  • Infections during pregnancy that pass to the fetus, particularly cytomegalovirus and German measles (rubella). Consuming raw or undercooked meat can also increase the risk of infection.
  • Brain hemorrhage prior to birth caused by a ruptured blood vessel.
  • Asphyxiation, or lack of oxygen reaching the brain, which can occur during birth from medical malpractice or neglect. Detecting a pinched umbilical cord or ruptured uterus early is key to preventing oxygen deprivation during delivery.
  • Severe jaundice, when left untreated, can turn into kernicterus, a toxic buildup of bilirubin in the brain.
  • Newborn infections such as meningitis can damage the brain’s motor control centers.

The location of brain damage can also influence the condition’s symptoms and severity. Currently, medical professionals categorize cerebral palsy by type according to the location of the damage:

  • Spastic: Damage to the motor cortex part of the brain that causes jerky, exaggerated movements.
  • Athetoid/dyskinetic: Damage to the cerebellum or basal ganglia, resulting in balance issues or involuntary movements.
  • Ataxic: Damage to the cerebellum, which causes issues with fine motor skills, balance and coordination.
  • Mixed: Damage to multiple centers of the brain.

While you can’t always prevent neurodevelopmental disorders such as ASD, ADHD, and CP, excellent prenatal care can increase your chances of having a healthy, full-term baby. Avoiding risky environmental factors after bringing your baby home can help prevent exposure to toxins. It’s also important to baby-proof your home to avoid accidents and injuries.

Some cases of cerebral palsy resulting from birth injuries could have been prevented in the delivery room. If you think your medical providers could be responsible for your child’s injuries, contact the Cerebral Palsy Family Lawyers at Janet, Janet & Suggs today, and let us help you and your family learn more about your legal options.



Reviewed by:
Trish Fletcher, MS, BSN, CRNP, NNP-BC, ALNC
Neonatal Nurse Practitioner | Birth Injury Legal Nurse Consultant

Tricia is a dedicated, focused, Birth Injury Legal Nurse Consultant and Neonatal Nurse Practitioner with more than 25 years of experience. Her strong clinical and critical thinking skills, paired with expertise caring for neonates in a Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), ensures meticulous medical records review. READ FULL BIO

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