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Keywords:

  • animal models;
  • clinical reports;
  • folate supplementation;
  • mechanisms of NTD;
  • neural tube closure;
  • neural tube defects

ABSTRACT  Spina bifida, anencephaly, and encephalocele are commonly grouped together and termed neural tube defects (NTD). Failure of closure of the neural tube during development results in anencephaly or spina bifida aperta but encephaloceles are possibly post-closure defects. NTD are associated with a number of other central nervous system (CNS) and non-neural malformations. Racial, geographic and seasonal variations seem to affect their incidence. Etiology of NTD is unknown. Most of the non-syndromic NTD are of multifactorial origin. Recent in vitro and in vivo studies have highlighted the molecular mechanisms of neurulation in vertebrates but the morphologic development of human neural tube is poorly understood. A multisite closure theory, extrapolated directly from mouse experiments highlighted the clinical relevance of closure mechanisms to human NTD. Animal models, such as circle tail, curly tail, loop tail, shrm and numerous knockouts provide some insight into the mechanisms of NTD. Also available in the literature are a plethora of chemically induced preclosure and a few post-closure models of NTD, which highlight the fact that CNS malformations are of hetergeneitic nature. No Mendelian pattern of inheritance has been reported. Association with single gene defects, enhanced recurrence risk among siblings, and a higher frequency in twins than in singletons indicate the presence of a strong genetic contribution to the etiology of NTD. Non-availability of families with a significant number of NTD cases makes research into genetic causation of NTD difficult. Case reports and epidemiologic studies have implicated a number of chemicals, widely differing therapeutic drugs, environmental contaminants, pollutants, infectious agents, and solvents. Maternal hyperthermia, use of valproate by epileptic women during pregnancy, deficiency and excess of certain nutrients and chronic maternal diseases (e.g. diabetes mellitus) are reported to cause a manifold increase in the incidence of NTD. A host of suspected teratogens are also available in the literature. The UK and Hungarian studies showed that periconceptional supplementation of women with folate (FA) reduces significantly both the first occurrence and recurrence of NTD in the offspring. This led to mandatory periconceptional FA supplementation in a number of countries. Encouraged by the results of clinical studies, numerous laboratory investigations focused on the genes involved in the FA, vitamin B12 and homocysteine metabolism during neural tube development. As of today no clinical or experimental study has provided unequivocal evidence for a definitive role for any of these genes in the causation of NTD suggesting that a multitude of genes, growth factors and receptors interact in controlling neural tube development by yet unknown mechanisms. Future studies must address issues of gene-gene, gene-nutrient and gene–environment interactions in the pathogenesis of NTD.