What's the Difference Between Cerebral Palsy and Down Syndrome?

If your child has received a diagnosis of either Cerebral Palsy or Down Syndrome, it can be a defining moment for you and them. Both conditions come with lifelong challenges, including physical disabilities and trouble adjusting socially and emotionally, which is why early intervention is so important. Often, people may confuse Cerebral Palsy with Down Syndrome in children, but the two are completely different. Here, we compare the two in detail. 

Understanding Cerebral Palsy and Down Syndrome

Cerebral Palsy refers to a group of neurological disorders that affect movement, muscle tone, coordination, and motor skills caused by damage or abnormalities in the developing brain. It is a non-progressive condition that occurs due to brain damage sustained before, during, or shortly after childbirth. While primarily a physical disorder, it can lead to cognitive problems in severe cases. Treatment can manage the symptoms and enable greater functionality and independence.

Down Syndrome is a genetic disorder that causes both physical and intellectual symptoms. It occurs due to the presence of an extra chromosome 21 as a result of poor chromosomal division, which is why another name for the condition is Trisomy 21. Patients with Down Syndrome have a characteristic physical appearance, some degree of intellectual weakness, and some co-conditions such as trouble breathing. Down Syndrome has no cure, but it is highly manageable with the right treatment.

Similarities between Cerebral Palsy and Down Syndrome

Cerebral Palsy and Down Syndrome have certain features in common, which we can discuss as follows:

  • Both Cerebral Palsy and Down Syndrome are non-progressive conditions, which means the symptoms do not get worse over time
  • Both conditions are classified as ‘syndromes’, as they involve a range of symptoms and complications
  • Both involve some degree of intellectual disability
  • Children with either condition will typically miss development milestones or reach them much later than usual
  • Both can cause eye diseases as a complication
  • Both are incurable but can benefit from early detection and treatment to manage the symptoms
  • Patients with either of the two are likely to face lifelong difficulties related to mental health, social inclusion, and discrimination

Difference between Cerebral Palsy and Down Syndrome

As completely separate conditions, Cerebral Palsy and Down Syndrome have many points of distinction. In fact, it is possible for a child to have both conditions at the same time. Here, we break down the difference between the two.

  • Cerebral Palsy is a neurological condition that occurs due to trauma sustained by the brain during pregnancy or shortly after birth. Down Syndrome, however, is a genetic ailment that occurs when a child has an extra copy of chromosome 21, leading to physical and intellectual defects.
  • The cause of Cerebral Palsy generally relates to factors like maternal infections, difficulties during childbirth, lack of oxygen to the brain during pregnancy or childbirth, and so on. Down Syndrome occurs when faulty chromosomal division leads to an extra copy of chromosome 21.
  • There are currently no known signs of Cerebral Palsy that can be detected during pregnancy. As a genetic disease, however, Down Syndrome is relatively easy to check for during pregnancy. 
  • The diagnosis for Cerebral Palsy involves several physical, neurological, and observational tests, and as such can take months or even years to confirm. On the other hand, the diagnosis for Down Syndrome is fairly straightforward, and doctors can confirm it via a blood test known as karyotype that confirms the presence of an extra chromosome 21. 
  • The symptoms of Cerebral Palsy include poor muscle tone that can lead to unnatural contractures or floppy limbs, although facial features are usually not affected. The physical Down Syndrome symptoms relate more to features, such as flattened face and small hands, although poor muscle tone may also be present.
  • As a movement disorder, patients with Cerebral Palsy may have significant difficulty with gross and fine motor skills, posture, and gait. Those with Down Syndrome will typically not have trouble with movement.
  • Only about 50% of patients with Cerebral Palsy will have intellectual disabilities. By contrast, everyone who has Down Syndrome has a lower IQ than normal and will demonstrate intellectual disabilities to some extent. 
  • The life expectancy for patients with Cerebral Palsy is varied, and many patients will go on to live a long and complete life. For Down Syndrome, however, the average life expectancy is about 60 years.

FAQs

Is Cerebral Palsy a syndrome?

Cerebral Palsy involves ataxia, spasticity, and/or problems with involuntary movements, and is thus classed as a syndrome rather than a specific disorder.

How is a Down Syndrome brain different?

Studies have demonstrated that people with Down Syndrome have smaller brains overall, with higher volumes of subcortical gray matter and smaller cerebellar volumes.

Why do all Down Syndrome look the same?

Patients with Down Syndrome are born with an extra chromosome that affects the growth of the skull and the cranial neural nest. They thus share certain characteristic features like almond-shaped eyes and a flattened face.

What causes Cerebral Palsy during pregnancy?

Cerebral Palsy can be caused due to brain damage incurred during pregnancy, as a result of reduced oxygen supply or certain maternal infections. 

Why can parents that do not have Down Syndrome, have a child with Down syndrome?

A child of healthy parents with the correct number of genes may still end up with what is known as translocation Down Syndrome. This can happen if the parents have some of their genes located on a different chromosome than usual. 

Does folic acid prevent Down Syndrome?

Studies have shown that consuming folic acid during early pregnancy can help prevent several defects and conditions in the child, including Down Syndrome.

Can 2 Down syndrome have a normal baby?

A woman with Down Syndrome has a 50% chance of conceiving a baby with Down Syndrome. Most men with Down Syndrome are unable to father children.

What is the oldest Down Syndrome person?

Georgie Wildgust, a former ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ participant with Down Syndrome, recently celebrated his 78th birthday. 

Can a child have Down Syndrome and not look like it?

In a rare variant of the condition known as Mosaic Down Syndrome, children will have the symptoms of the condition without physically resembling someone who has Down Syndrome,

Is Cerebral Palsy genetic or hereditary?

Studies have shown that there are certain genetic and hereditary factors that can predispose someone to Cerebral Palsy. However, most of the time, Cerebral Palsy occurs because of an injury or infection sustained at or just after birth.

Can you see Cerebral Palsy on an ultrasound?

An ultrasound can help to detect brain abnormalities that are typical in patients with Cerebral Palsy. However, this alone cannot make a diagnosis.

How do you test for palsy?

Typically, doctors will recommend a variety of tests to detect Cerebral Palsy, including a CT scan, metabolic testing, genetic testing, an EEG, or others.

Can you pass down Cerebral Palsy?

Neither men nor women with Cerebral Palsy will pass down the condition to their child, as it is not a hereditary condition.

What is the average lifespan of a person with Cerebral Palsy?

In general, patients with Cerebral Palsy can be expected to live between 30 to 70 years of age depending on the severity of their symptoms. Many, however, go on to live longer. 

In conclusion, Cerebral Palsy and Down Syndrome are both conditions that will have a lifelong impact on your child, though in widely different ways. What is important to remember is that treatment can significantly alleviate the symptoms of both, especially when started early. This, combined with love and patience from your end, will ensure that your child has an enjoyable, safe, and fulfilling life. 

Dr Na'eem Sadiq is a respected stem cell specialist at Plexus, and a prominent neurologist in Bangalore. He studied neurology and clinical neurophysiology in London, and worked with some of the most prestigious medical institutions in England, and the Middle East. He completed his MBBS at Bellary Government Medical College, and a postgraduate degree in psychiatry from NIMHANS in Bangalore.

Dr Na'eem has perfected his knowledge and expertise in Continuing medical education (CME), and training in tissue culture, Stem Cell Therapy, and neurology. Dr Na'eem Sadiq possesses an undying passion to improve people’s lives. This led to the creation of Plexus, a neuro and Stem Cell Research centre in Bangalore in neurosurgery, and neurorehabilitation.