Congenital heart disease: neurologic complications

Melissa A Eppinger BA (Ms. Eppinger of Goryeb’s Children Hospital at Morristown Medical Center has no relevant financial relationships to disclose.)
Bernard L Maria MD (Dr. Maria of Thomas Jefferson University has no relevant financial relationships to disclose.)
Originally released July 12, 1994; last updated May 20, 2018; expires May 20, 2021


Certain neurologic complications are often seen in children born with congenital heart disease; the primary neurologic complications of congenital heart disease include stroke, seizures, epilepsy, hemorrhage, and infections. Data on developmental outcomes, mortality, and morbidity have been rapidly updated as surgical techniques improve. This article reviews the current literature and describes the different types of congenital heart defects, including genetic and environmental factors, and their associated neurologic disorders. Methods for management, treatment, and prevention of the most common types of congenital heart disease are also provided.

Key points


• Children born with congenital, or acquired, heart disease often experience adverse neurologic complications.


• With the growing success of complex surgical procedures that correct congenital heart defects, infants who might have previously died are now surviving into adulthood.


• Alongside improved survival rates, advancements in technology have altered the neurodevelopmental outcomes seen in congenital heart disease survivors. Application of noninvasive diagnostic tools, such as MRI, MRA, CT, microarray analysis, and cranial ultrasound studies in neonates, have allowed us to diagnose vascular lesions that in previous years may have been silent.

Historical note and terminology

Aggressive surgical correction of congenital heart disease had been proposed as the future treatment of choice years before the first open heart surgery in children in 1951. Cardiopulmonary bypass with hypothermia techniques soon followed in 1953. As more difficult cases were taken to surgery and as survival rates improved, more neurologic complications were noted. Changes in technology have altered the types of neurologic complications that are seen in survivors of congenital heart disease who would likely have died decades ago.

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