The aim of this study was to determine whether open lumbosacral spina bifida results from an abnormality of neural folding (primary neurulation) or medullary cord canalisation (secondary neurulation). Homozygous curly tail (ct) mouse embryos were studied as a model system for human neural tube defects. The rostral end of the spina bifida was found to lie at the level of somites 27 to 32 in over 90% of affected ct/ct embryos. Indian ink marking experiments using non-mutant embryos showed that the posterior neuropore closes, and primary neurulation is completed, at the level of somites 32 to 34. Since neurulation in mammals progresses in a craniocaudal sequence, without overlap between regions of primary and secondary neurulation, we conclude that spina bifida in ct/ct embryos arises initially as a defect of primary neurulation. The position of posterior neuropore closure in human embryos is estimated to lie at the level of the future second sacral segment indicating that in humans, as in the ct mouse, lumbosacral spina bifida usually arises as a defect of posterior neuropore closure. Cranial NTD affect females predominantly, whereas lower spinal NTD are more common in males, both in humans and ct mice. We offer an explanation for this phenomenon based on (a) differences in the effect of embryonic growth retardation on the likelihood that an embryo will develop either cranial or lower spinal NTD and (b) differences in the rate of growth and development of male and female embryos at the time of neurulation.
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