What causes infantile spasm (West syndrome)?

Updated: Jan 11, 2019
  • Author: Tracy A Glauser, MD; Chief Editor: Stephen L Nelson, Jr, MD, PhD, FAACPDM, FAAN, FAAP  more...
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Infantile spasms are believed to reflect abnormal interactions between the cortex and brainstem structures. Focal lesions early in life may secondarily affect other sites in the brain, and hypsarrhythmia may represent this abnormal activity arising from multiple brain sites. The frequent onset of infantile spasms in infancy suggests that an immature central nervous system (CNS) may be important in the syndrome’s pathogenesis.

The brain-adrenal axis also may be involved. One theory states that the effect of different stressors in the immature brain produces an abnormal, excessive secretion of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), causing spasms. [4] The clinical response to adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and glucocorticoids can be explained by the suppression of CRH production.

An existing animal model of infantile spasm may provide better insight into the pathogenesis of this disorder. The model uses a sodium channel blocker, tetrodotoxin (TTX), that is infused into the hippocampus of rodents. This infusion has produced clinical spasms in rats with electrographic findings similar to those seen in human infantile spasms. [5]

Infantile spasms can be classified according to their suspected etiology as symptomatic, cryptogenic, or idiopathic.


Patients are diagnosed with symptomatic infantile spasms if an identifiable factor is responsible for the syndrome. Virtually any disorder that can produce brain damage can be associated with infantile spasms. The list of etiologies can be subdivided into prenatal disorders, perinatal disorders, and postnatal disorders.

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