Kernicterus came from the German word “kern” which means “nuclei” and the Greek word “ikteros” which means “yellow” or “jaundice”. This is characterized by the yellow staining of the basal ganglia, the brain’s deep nuclei. This is a preventable brain damage caused by high levels of bilirubin, an orange-yellow substance produced by the liver, which causes jaundice (hyperlink). This rare condition often affects newborns because their livers are still developing and heavily taxed.
Since the bilirubin is too high, it moves out of the blood and goes into the brain which leads to lesions to brainstem nuclei affecting the parts for hearing, eye movement, balance, and coordination.
The babies then become lethargic, have decreased muscle tone, and arch their back and head backwards. Those in the severe stage may contortedly arch their heads, have fever, and develop seizures. In addition they may have movement disorders, hearing loss, eye movement impairment, and abnormal teeth staining. Kernicterus can be prevented through phototherapy or exchange transfusion. These procedures may be done once blood tests confirm the newborn’s risk for this dysfunction.
Also see Bilirubin Encephalopathy.