What is a Neural Tube? - Definition, Development & Disorders

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

A neural tube is found in developing vertebrate embryos. Read this lesson to learn what it is, when you had one, what happened to it, and what happens if it doesn't develop correctly!

Neural Tube Definition

Guess what? You had a neural tube at one point in time, though I guarantee you don't remember it. All embryos of vertebrates have a neural tube before their central nervous system develops, and it is basically the 'first draft' of the brain and spinal cord. Once the initial neural tube forms, there are four stages of subdivisions that take place before the final central nervous system is completed. These divisions are instigated by the neuroepithelial cells, and the divisions take place in the prosencephalon, the mesencephalon, the rhombencephalon, and the spinal cord. At the end of these subdivisions, there is an identifiable brain, spine, and spinal cord that will continue to develop during pregnancy and early years of life.

Neural Tube Development

The neural tube can develop in two different ways: primary neurulation or secondary neurulation. What's the difference? In primary neurulation, the cells around the neural plate instigate the neural tube's formation. In secondary neurulation, a tube of cells develops and then becomes hollow, forming the neural tube. The type of neurulation depends on the type of animal - fish undergo secondary neurulation, while birds and amphibians undergo both types at different stages of development.

Divisions of neural tube during development
neural tube development

Neural Tube Defects

When the neural tube doesn't develop properly, it results in birth defects in the brain, spine, or spinal cord. Most of these defects occur during the first month of pregnancy (which is often before a woman even realizes she is pregnant), and the two most common forms of neural tube defects are spina bifida and anencephaly. In spina bifida, the spinal column never closes completely - it's incomplete and never finishes developing. The most common side effect of this defect is partial or complete paralysis of the legs. In anencephaly, a majority of the brain and skull fails to develop. As a result, the embryo is usually naturally aborted, and even if it is birthed, it will not survive long. A less-common neural tube defect is Chiari malformation, which occurs when the embryo's brain tissue expands into the spinal cord.

Spina bifida due to incomplete closing of the neural tube
spina bifida

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