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Natural History

Children with congenital scoliosis tend to have their curvature noted much earlier in life than the typical child with idiopathic scoliosis or neuromuscular scoliosis. Congenital curves tend to be very rigid and resistant to correction. They are frequently progressive, and usually cause large deformities. For this reason, the natural history of the individual curve should be understood, and deformities with relentless progression should not be allowed to worsen. In those with a known tendency for progression, early surgical intervention, such as spinal fusion, is essential and preferable to allowing severe curves to develop. Early surgical intervention for children with congenital deformities that have a poor prognosis allows for additional growth in the involved areas of the spine.

Associated Findings
Patients with congenital scoliosis frequently have other associated anomalies. Absent or fused ribs are a common associated defect, since the ribs derive from the same embryonic origins as the vertebrae. When the number of ribs on the right or left side do not match, congenital vertebral anomalies should be suspected. Associated congenital anomalies can also involve non-skeletal organs. The most frequently associated defect is found in the genitourinary system. About 20% to 40% of patients with congenital vertebral malformations have renal anomalies, including unilateral kidney, ureteric duplication or obstruction. All patients diagnosed with a congenital spine anomaly must have a renal tract evaluation by a renal ultrasound. If an obstructive uropathy is detected during the ultrasound, appropriate urologic procedures should be done before instituting orthopaedic treatment of the scoliosis. A second area of concern is the detection of cardiac anomalies. About 10--15% of patients with congenital scoliosis have congenital heart defects. A careful cardiovascular system evaluation is essential for these children. In approximately 20% of patients with congenital scoliosis, spinal cord developmental defects have been observed, including tethered cord, fibrous dural bands, diastemetomyelia, or intradural lipoma. These spinal cord abnormalities are frequently associated with cutaneous changes (hair patches, dimples, pigmentation) and various abnormalities of the lower extremities, including flat feet, cavus feet, vertical tali, clubfeet, or asymmetric reflexes. All these children should have an MRI scan to evaluate the spinal canal. These associated defects may reflect genetic or developmental commonalities with the formation of the spinal column.

Embryology and the Formation of the Spine
The spine is formed during a process called somitogenesis. This formation is a very early event, and takes place between 20 and 30 days of gestation, during the first month of pregnancy, and in the mouse between 8 and 12 days. In this process, segments of mesodermal tissue called somites are formed in pairs surrounding what will eventually become the spinal cord (Figs. 3 and 4). These somites are regularly sized and spaced, and this careful organization is essential for the normal patterning of the spine. The segmentation is associated with drastic cellular cytoskeletal rearrangements and biomechanical changes. When somitogenesis is disrupted even slightly, as has been done in animal models, congenital vertebral defects similar to those in congenital scoliosis have resulted. The somites eventually mature, producing sclerotomal cells that migrate and surround the developing spinal cord to form the bones of the vertebrae. These same somites also form the axial muscles that connect the vertebral segments, and the ribs associated with the thoracic vertebrae. Many other organs and tissues are being made during this important time in development, including the heart, kidneys, brain, limbs and other organs.

Congenital Scoliosis Segments
Congenital Scoliosis Segments

Fig. 3. Somitogenesis in the embryo. Cross-sections of the developing embryo are shown, representing the different stages of patterning in somitogenesis, which takes place between 20 and 30 days of gestation. (A) Prior to formation of the somite segments, the neural plate is folding to eventually form the neural tube, which is the precursor to the adult spinal cord. The tissue that will form somites is unsegmented, and lies to the side of the notochord, which contributes to the intervertebral discs in the adult. (B) Upon segmentation, the somites are formed as a pair of spherical ball of cells on either side of the future spinal cord. (C) As the somites mature, the sections nearest the gut migrate away to form the sclerotome, the precursors to the vertebral bones. The remaining dermomyotome forms the muscles of the spine, and the dermis in the skin.

Mouse Embryo
Mouse Embryo

Fig. 4. Somites in a 9.5-day mouse embryo. A mouse embryo at 9.5 days of gestation (equivalent to a human embryo at 25 days of gestation) prepared to highlight the somites with a dark stain. The somites are the embryonic precursors to the adult vertebrae. The embryonic precursors to the adult eye, inner ear, brain (midbrain), forelimbs (equivalent of arms in human), and somites have been indicated. The Meox 1 gene was used for whole mount in situ hybridization of the 9.5-day embryo.

What controls the regular production of somites, and the resulting highly organized spine? Studies from a number of animal models have shown that certain families of developmental genes are essential for regulating somitogenesis, and when those genes are disrupted, vertebral deformities can result. In addition, strong evidence has been accumulated that environmental factors can also disrupt somitogenesis. Currently, researchers hypothesize that these environmental factors affect the delivery of these genetic instructions during development, so it is the close interaction of genes and environment that produce the normal spine.

Genes and Spinal Development
With the completion of sequencing of the human genome, we know that there are approximately 30,000--40,000 genes encoded within human genome [17]. Human and mouse genes share high degree of homology, due the relatively recent evolutionary divergence of these mammals. By studying what happens to the axial skeleton when these genetic instructions are disrupted in the mouse, we have learned a great deal about the most important genes in spinal development. To date, some abnormalities of genes involved in mouse somitogenesis have been found to cause human spinal deformities.

One family of these somite genes is those in the "notch" pathway. Genes in the notch pathway regulate cell-fate determination and embryonic patterning in animals. Recent experiments on notch pathway in the mouse and chick embryo have uncovered a mechanism that regulates and maintains the repeated production of somites. The mechanism involves the "clock and wave-front" model of somitogenesis, which involves an internal oscillator or clock underlying the regular periodicity of patterning events. Until recently, there was no significant supporting biological evidence for this phenomenon. However, the identification of genes expressed in an oscillatory manner, in synchrony with each somite cycle, including notch pathway genes Lfng, Hes1, Hes7, Hey2 in the mouse, hairy1 and hairy2 in the chick, has revived interest in this model. The cycling of these genes is thought to regulate the periodic activation of the notch signaling pathway, which would be required for the segmentation process.

Disrupting many genes in the notch pathway produces somite segmentation defects and vertebral anomalies in mice. Mouse mutations in genes of the notch pathway produce severe somite segmentation phenotypes, including Notch1, Notch2, Dll1, Dll3, Psen1, and Lfng. Recently in humans, mutations in two genes in the notch family have been identified with human defects of vertebral deformities; delta-like3 in spondylocostal dysostosis (MIM277300), and jagged 1 in Alagille syndrome (MIM118450). Spondylocostal dysostosis is a severe vertebral defect syndrome that is characterized by generalized vertebral anomalies, rib fusions, and congenital kyphoscoliosis. Alagille syndrome is a congenital, multi-organ disorder that is also associated with multiple vertebral anomalies and liver and heart problems.

Somite genes that control or influence somitogenesis, including those in the notch family, are currently being examined in human spinal defects. We have established a basic science research program and a large multi-center clinical genetic study of congenital scoliosis and kyphosis centered at our institution. We are working to find and better understand the factors underlying vertebral anomalies, by combining results from our molecular genetic studies with information from our growing patient database of congenital scoliosis and kyphosis cases. Study also centers using animal models to examine the developmental origins of these defects.

Inherited congenital vertebral malformations, such as spondylocostal dysostosis, are rare. The genetic etiology for congenital scoliosis is still unclear. Wynn-Davis reported a series of patients in which there was a definite correlation between mixed, multilevel defects, and spina bifida cystica, but she found no genetic implication for isolated lesions such as hemivertebrae. In one study, only 13 out of 1,250 patients with congenital spinal deformities had a first- or second-degree relative with vertebral defect. However, gene defects are not necessarily binary, i.e., there may be some genetic lesions that do not produce a malformation normally, but might make the fetus susceptible to environmental causes of congenital scoliosis. This interaction between genes and environment has been seen in complex human diseases such as diabetes or heart disease, and researchers expect that this may also underlie congenital scoliosis.

Environmental Factors Associated with Congenital Scoliosis
Congenital vertebral defects have been produced in newborn animals experimentally by transient hypoxia or exposure to toxic elements during fetal period. The first reported experiments on the harmful effect of oxygen deficiency on embryonic development were performed in the mouse animal model. The hypoxia produced many gross skeletal defects including hemivertebrae, vertebral fusions, fragmented vertebral bodies, bifid ribs or junctions of two or more ribs. The location of the vertebral defects depended on the time during fetal development--the affected structures were derived from the somites being formed at the time.

Carbon monoxide has been shown to induce fetal hypoxia, causing congenital vertebral anomalies in mice. Studies investigating maternal carbon monoxide exposure during somite formation in the developing embryo produced vertebral and other skeletal anomalies in the offspring of mice and rabbit. The incidence and severity of congenital spinal deformities reported in these studies were also directly related to dose and time of exposure. Carbon monoxide exposure at 9.5 days of gestation in the mouse resulted in the highest incidence of vertebral malformations.

Carbon monoxide is one of the most commonly encountered occupational and environmental pollutants. Approximately 28--30% of the female population smoke during their child bearing years, thus making cigarette smoking by pregnant women a common source of high concentrations of carbon monoxide exposure to the developing fetus. In human studies, significant associations were reported between cigarette smoking and spontaneous abortions and low birth weight. In addition, severe, acute exposure to carbon monoxide has been shown to cause fetal deaths and anatomical malformations such as Mongoloid-type features, missing and deformed limbs or low-set ears.

Research has uncovered additional environmental factors associated with vertebral anomalies. For example, patients with fetal alcohol syndrome have an increased incidence of Klippel-Feil syndrome, a related cervical vertebral defect characterized with congenital fusion of the cervical spine ranging from a two-segment fusion to involvement of the entire cervical spine. Also, hyperthermia, or exposure to above normal body temperature, has been shown to disrupt vertebral development in animal models. The severity of hyperthermia-induced spinal deformities has been correlated with the time and duration of exposure. Further epidemiological work will help to define how exactly these environmental variables interact with genetic factors, and what additional environmental factors are associated with vertebral birth defects.

Although there are many types of vertebral dysmorphology observed in congenital scoliosis, they result from abnormal segmentation of the vertebral precursors, called somites. The interaction of environmental factors and the genes that play a role in regulation of somite segmentation, is thought to be disrupted in congenital vertebral deformities such as congenital scoliosis. A large multi-center, clinical genetic study of congenital scoliosis and kyphosis has been established at our institution, and the origins of segmental defects are being examined in animal models. Studying the developmental mechanisms in vertebral patterning will aid in the identification of protective factors for normal spinal development, and ultimately will create a better understanding of ways to prevent and better treat those with congenital scoliosis.