Research Update: Nutrition and brain development in early life

Adequate nutrition from conception through infancy lays the foundation for lifetime brain function.

Proper nutrition is important for normal brain development, especially during pregnancy and the first few years after birth. Studies have generally found that children with early malnutrition had poorer IQ levels, cognitive function and school achievements, as well as greater behavioural problems. In this review article published last year in Nutrition Reviews, the role of nutrients in brain development and factors influencing the impact of undernutrition were discussed.

Based on current evidence, the paper’s authors stressed that many nutrients are required for neurodevelopmental processes. These include protein, essential fatty acids and micronutrients such as iron, iodine, zinc, choline and B-vitamins. Nutrient deficiencies can affect neuron proliferation; axon and dendrite growth; synapse formation, pruning and function; myelination as well as neuron apoptosis. Children who are deficient in one micronutrient are commonly at risk for deficiencies in others as well.

Several factors may influence the adverse impact of undernutrition. For example, brain development is also affected by experience. Undernutrition and a poor-quality environment may have additive or interacting effects on a child’s motor, cognitive and socioemotional development. Another example is the timing of nutrient deprivation. Nutrient deficiency is more likely to impair brain development if it occurs during a period when there is an increased need for that nutrient for neurodevelopment processes – each process is known to occur in different, overlapping time periods in different brain areas.

To ensure that all children have the opportunity to fulfil their developmental potential, the authors recommend interventions which improve nutritional status, the home environment and quality of caregiver-infant interaction.


Last updated on 26 Feb 2015

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