Anencephaly is an open neural tube defect, meaning that part of the neural tube does not properly close or that it has reopened during early embryogenesis. An embryo with anencephaly develops without the top of the skull, but retains a partial skull, including the face. Anencephaly is one of the most common birth defects of the neural tube, occurring at a rate of approximately one in one thousand human pregnancies. The condition can be caused by environmental exposure to chemicals, dietary deficiencies, or genetic mutations.

Sprayed extensively by the US military in Vietnam, Agent Orange contained a dioxin contaminant later found to be toxic to humans. Despite reports by Vietnamese citizens and Vietnam War veterans of increased rates of stillbirths and birth defects in their children, studies in the 1980s showed conflicting evidence for an association between the two. In 1996, the US National Academy of Sciences reported that there was evidence that suggested dioxin and Agent Orange exposure caused spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal cord develops improperly. The US Department of Veterans Affairs' subsequent provision of disability compensation for spina bifida-affected children marked the US government's first official acknowledgement of a link between Agent Orange and birth defects. By 2016, spina bifida and related neural tube defects were the only birth defects associated with Agent Orange.

From 1993 to 1995 researchers led by Robert J. Berry from the US Centers for Disease Control headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, and Zhu Li from Beijing Medical University in Beijing, China, conducted a collaborative study in China on the prevention of neural tube defects or NTDs using folic acid supplements. NTDs are birth defects in which openings in the spinal cord or the brain that occur during early development remain after birth. Neural-tube formation occurs in early pregnancy, often before a woman knows she is pregnant and therefore before she has begun taking prenatal vitamins. The researchers presented their findings in the article “Prevention of the Neural Tube Defects with Folic Acid in China” published in 1999 in The New England Journal of Medicine. The researchers from The China-US study found that women who took folic acid in the periconceptional period, or the time before conception through the first twenty-eight days after conception, reduced the occurrence of NTDs.

In the US, one in 1000 births is affected by neural tube defects (NTD). A neural tube defect is a birth defect involving the malformation of body features associated with the brain and spinal cord. An NTD originates from and is characterized by incomplete closure of the neural tube, which is an organizer and precursor of the central nervous system. In humans, incomplete closure of the neural tube during embryonic development results in anatomical abnormalities such as anencephaly (a severe lack of skull and brain), hydranencephaly (cerebral hemispheres replaced with sacs of cerebrospinal fluid), spina bifida occulta (incompletely closed lower spinal cord), iniencephaly (severe retroflexed head and spinal defects), and encephalocele (a sac-like protrusion from an opening somewhere along the midline of the skull).