Which cranial nerve findings are characteristic of hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE)?

Updated: Jul 18, 2018
  • Author: Santina A Zanelli, MD; Chief Editor: Dharmendra J Nimavat, MD, FAAP  more...
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Lack of reflex activity mediated by the cranial nerves can indicate brainstem dysfunction.

Full-term infants should blink and sustain eye closure in response to a sustained light stimulus. Repeated flashes of light should produce habituation (eg, attenuated blinking) after 3-4 stimuli. Virtually all full-term newborns can track a ball of red wool, and the movement of stripes of at least one eighth of an inch or bigger can elicit opticokinetic nystagmus. Objects and pictures with round contours and facial appearances also make good targets for tracking in the newborn. Tracking is possible in infants with complete destruction of the occipital cortex by virtue of a subcortical pulvinar-collicular system. Retinal hemorrhages are commonly observed in the neonate after vaginal delivery and can result in decreased pupil response. Destruction of the occipital cortex will also not affect pupillary response, because the responsible pathways leave the optic nerve and travel to the Edinger-Westphal nucleus, which sends back axons via the bilateral oculomotor nerves (consensual pupillary reflex).

Neurologic examination may be difficult in the small and frail premature infant, but weakness of the lower extremities sometimes reflects the neuropathologic substrate of periventricular leukomalacia. Over time, the patient with periventricular white-matter lesions develops spastic diplegia affecting the lower extremities more than the upper extremities.

Blinking to light starts at 26 weeks’ gestational age, sustained eye closure to light is seen around 32 weeks, and 90% of newborns track a ball of red wool by 34 weeks. Opticokinetic reflexes can be seen at 36 weeks. The pupil starts reacting to light around 30 weeks, but the light reflex is not consistently assessable until the gestational age of 32-35 weeks. Pupillary reflexes are reliably present at term. Extraocular movements can be elicited by performing the doll's-eye maneuver at 25 weeks’ gestation and by performing caloric stimulation at 30 weeks’ gestation.

In infants aged 32-34 weeks’ gestation, suck and swallow are reasonably coordinated with breathing, but the actions are not perfected until after term.

Patients with mild HIE often have mydriasis. Progression of the disease may produce miosis (even in the dark) responsive to light, and in severe cases (stage 3 of Sarnat classification), the pupils are small or midpositioned and poorly reactive to light, reflecting sympathetic or parasympathetic dysfunction.

The lack of pupillary, eye movement, corneal, gag, and cough reflexes may reflect damage to the brainstem, where the cranial-nerve nuclei are located. Decreased respiratory drive or apnea can be from lesions of the respiratory center, which overlap with vagal nuclei (ambiguous and solitaire) or medullary reticular formation. Ventilatory disturbances in HIE may manifest as periodic breathing apnea (similar to Cheyne-Stokes respiration) or just decreased respiratory drive.

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