Kernicterus, a Definition

Parents seek an authentic kernicterus definition in order to understand all they can about their child’s condition. Medical journals and health and pediatric websites offer various definitions ranging from general descriptions to technical articles.

Learning the literal definition of “kernicterus” and how the term came about is helpful. Kernicterus, in fact, literally means “yellow kernel.”

  • kern is the Greek work for “kernel.” In this case, kernel refers to the areas (the deep nuclei) of the brain that are affected by bilirubin toxicity.
  • icterus is the Greek word for “yellow,” and refers to the yellow staining that happens when bilirubin spreads from the bloodstream into these areas of the brain.

Jaundice in newborns has been recognized for centuries. Lack of medical understanding of the toxic affect of bilirubin was a major problem of pediatrics well into the first half of the 20th century. Research was based upon autopsies of newborns who did not survive the effects of jaundice. The term “kernicterus” was created in 1904 by the German scientist Christian Schmorl, who coined the term from the intense yellow staining he observed through microscopic study of the nuclei in the brains of 120 such infants.

Research on kernicterus has undergone significant progress in the past 60 years. Today, MRI scans now aid in the detection of kernicterus in a living child with severe jaundice.

The important thing to know is that kernicterus can be prevented. The term reflects the end result of untreated excess jaundice, also known as hyperbilirubinemia. The following description provides an accurate and comprehensive definition:

Kernicterus: A type of preventable brain damage that can cause athetoid cerebral palsy (uncontrollable movement of the face, body, arms, and legs), deafness and hearing loss, upward gaze paresis, dental enamel hypoplasia, and sometimes, intellectual disabilities. Kernicterus is caused by excessive newborn jaundice. The high blood level of the pigment bilirubin results in its accumulation in the brain, which damages the brain.

Read an in-depth kernicterus definition in our article, What Is Kernicterus?


Parents and families of children with kernicterus have a deep need to understand what has happened, which is why we have created the Kernicterus Information Center. If your questions are not answered here, and you would like more information about your legal rights, please contact our kernicterus lawyers for a free consultation. Our firm exists to give a powerful voice to you and your family.