An Overview of Dandy-Walker Syndrome

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Dandy-Walker syndrome, also known as the Dandy-Walker malformation, is a rare, congenital hydrocephalus (a buildup of fluid in the brain) that affects the cerebellum portion of the brain. The condition, which occurs in one in every 25,000 to 35,000 live births each year, causes different parts of the cerebellum to develop abnormally.

Some malformations associated with Dandy-Walker syndrome include:

  • The absence or limited development of the vermis, the central part of the cerebellum
  • Limited development of the left and right sides of the cerebellum
  • An enlargement of the fourth ventricle, a small space that allows fluid to flow between the upper and lower portions of the brain and the spinal cord
  • The development of a large, cyst-like formation at the base of the skull, where the brainstem and cerebellum are located

Because the cerebellum is a vital part of the body’s movement, balance, and coordination, many people with Dandy-Walker syndrome have issues with their voluntary muscle movements and coordination. They may also experience difficulties with their motor skills, mood, and behavior, and can have limited intellectual development. About half of those with Dandy-Walker syndrome have a below average IQ.

The degree of this condition and its effects vary from person to person but can require lifelong management. Read on to learn more about Dandy-Walker syndrome, as well as its signs and symptoms, and treatment options available.

Causes

The development of Dandy-Walker syndrome occurs very early in utero when the cerebellum and its surrounding structures fail to fully develop.

Although many people with Dandy-Walker syndrome have chromosomal abnormalities linked to the condition, researchers believe most cases are caused by highly complex genetic components or isolated environmental factors, like exposure to substances that cause birth defects.

Immediate family members, like children or siblings, are at an increased risk of developing Dandy-Walker syndrome, but it doesn’t have a distinct inheritance pattern—for siblings, the recurrence rate hovers around 5 percent.

Some research suggests that the health of the mother may also contribute to the development of Dandy-Walker syndrome—women with diabetes are more likely to give birth to a child with the condition.

How Genetic Abnormalities Occur in Children

Symptoms

For most people, the signs and symptoms of Dandy-Walker syndrome are evident at birth or within their first year, but 10 to 20 percent of individuals may not develop symptoms until late childhood or early adulthood.

Symptoms of Dandy-Walker syndrome vary from person to person, but developmental troubles in infancy and increased head circumference due to hydrocephalus may be the first—or only—signs.

Some other common symptoms of Dandy-Walker syndrome include:

  • Slowed motor development: Kids with Dandy-Walker syndrome often experience delays in motor skills like crawling, walking, balancing, and other motor skills that require the coordination of body parts.
  • Progressive enlargement of the skull and bulging at its base: Buildup of fluids in the skull can increase the size and circumference of the skull over time, or cause a large bulge to develop at its base.
  • Symptoms of intracranial pressure: The buildup of fluids can also contribute to increased intracranial pressure. Although these symptoms are hard to detect in babies, irritability, bad mood, double vision, and vomiting may be indicators in older kids.
  • Jerky, uncoordinated movements, muscle stiffness, and spasms: The inability to control movements, balance, or perform coordinated tasks may suggest issues with the development of the cerebellum.  
  • Seizures: Approximately 15 to 30 percent of people with Dandy-Walker syndrome experience seizures.

If your child begins to develop any of these symptoms, contact your pediatrician immediately. Be sure to record your child’s symptoms, when they started, the severity of symptoms, and any noticeable progression, and bring your notes to your appointment.

Dandy-Walker syndrome has a survival rate of 75 to 100 percent, but some cases require lifelong management and treatment. It’s important to take charge of the condition early on, so you can avoid more serious complications down the road.

Diagnosis

Dandy-Walker syndrome is diagnosed with diagnostic imaging. After a physical exam and questionnaire, your child’s doctor will order an ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look for signs of Dandy-Walker syndrome, including malformations in the brain and the buildup of fluids.

Treatment

Although Dandy-Walker syndrome can interfere with everyday life, milder cases don’t always require treatment—it depends on the severity of the developmental and coordination issues the person is experiencing.

Some common treatments for Dandy-Walker syndrome include:

  • The surgical implantation of a shunt in the skull: If your child experiences intracranial pressure, doctors may recommend inserting a shunt (a small tube) in the skull to help alleviate pressure. This tube will drain fluid from the skull and carry it to other areas of the body, where it can be safely absorbed.
  • Various therapies: Special education, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy can help your child manage the issues linked to Dandy-Walker syndrome. Talk to your pediatrician about the therapies that will be most effective for your child.

As previously mentioned, Dandy-Walker syndrome has a high survival rate; most of the deaths linked to the disorder, although uncommon, are typically caused by complications from hydrocephalus or treatment.

Managing Elevated Intracranial Pressure

A Word From Verywell

Like any condition affecting the brain, a Dandy-Walker syndrome diagnosis can be scary. It’s important to remember that the survival rate is high, and most people with Dandy-Walker syndrome can lead happy, healthy lives with the help of educational, occupational, and physical therapies.

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