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What is Water on the Brain?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Water on the brain, known more formally as hydrocephalus, is a neurological condition characterized by a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. This fluid normally delivers nutrients to the brain and acts as a shock absorber to protect the brain, but when it builds up, it can damage the soft tissues of the brain and increase the pressure inside the skull, leading to a variety of neurological problems. Hydrocephalus is the leading cause of brain surgery among children, and numerous people all over the world live with this condition, some of whom manage to live very successfully despite substantial alterations to their brain structure.

In some cases, water on the brain is congenital, caused by defects in the structure of the brain which impair the circulation and drainage of cerebrospinal fluid. Other cases are acquired, caused by damage to the brain such as a stroke or traumatic brain injury. In both cases, the buildup of fluid can be clearly seen in imaging studies of the brain, and sequential studies can be used to determine how rapidly the buildup is occurring.

When someone has the form of water on the brain known as communicating hydrocephalus, the cerebrospinal fluid can circulate successfully between the ventricles of the brain, but it cannot drain properly. In noncommunicating hydrocephalus, the circulation of the fluid is blocked. As the brain keeps producing its daily complement of cerebrospinal fluid, the water on the brain starts to cause neurological problems because it has no escape route.

In children, the earliest sign of hydrocephalus can sometimes be an expansion in head size, caused by the skull's increased growth to accommodate the larger volume of the brain and cerebrospinal fluid. Water on the brain can also cause symptoms like vomiting, nausea, vision problems, seizures, sleepiness, and developmental delays. When these symptoms present in a patient, a doctor can order a medical imaging study to look at the brain and learn more about what is causing the patient's symptoms.

It is not possible to cure water on the brain, but the condition can be treated. Treatment involves inserting a shunt into the brain to provide a drainage method. The shunt is a flexible plastic tube which drains to another portion of the body which can reabsorb and eventually express the cerebrospinal fluid. Placing a shunt must be done with care to avoid causing brain damage, and the shunt needs to be monitored to confirm that it is draining properly.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon153717 — On Feb 18, 2011

I'm a person who lives with hydrocephalus and I live a completely normal life.

By Denha — On Nov 14, 2010

@recapitulate, from what I know of the subject, the condition you're describing is something called "water intoxication", or hyponatremia. That condition does come from drinking too much water, an amount which varies based on a person's age, size, et cetera; it can happen to a dehydrated person who drinks too much water without electrolytes as well as anyone who drinks too much water. However it happens, it is a one-time occurrence that can lead to death similar to drowning in fresh water.

Hydrocephalus, on the other hand, is an ongoing condition which could lead to death, but can also be treated and lived with.

By recapitulate — On Nov 14, 2010

I have heard before that a person can drink too much water and thus drown, but I hadn't heard of hydrocephalus/ "water on the brain". I'm curious, are these two related or capable of causing one another, or are they just slightly similar conditions?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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