Brain Development during early infancy-role of nutrients

The 1ST 2 years of life is a time of rapid and dramatic postnatal brain development. During this period there are several changes that take place in the growing brain; neural plasticity, acquisition of cognitive development i.e. working memory, attention etc. Also, children have spoken vocabulary increases significantly during this period and they gain greater motor coordination, and they are able to engage in tasks for longer periods.


Nutrition plays a major role in postnatal brain and behavior development during initial year of life and pre-school years.  The relationship between nutrition and brain development is complex and there are various mechanisms whereby nutrition may influence brain development and behavior. These functions of brain are reflected in need for certain nutrients such as choline, folic acid, iron, zinc and fats like gangliosides, sphingolipids and DHA. Moreover, nutrition is found to have direct effects on gene expression in brain.


In understanding the influence of nutrients on brain and behavior development, it is important to note that the nutrients’ essentiality depends on the timing of their delivery in relation to critical periods during brain development. A critical period typically encompasses a relatively narrow time-frame during which a particular brain region develops or in which a specific experience must occur. Balanced nutrition during the first few months lays a strong foundation for optimal brain growth and neurological development. The growth and the functioning of the human brain are dependent on a variety of substances that neonates are exposed to. From various studies, it is clear that infants breasted longer have better academic performance than their peers who were either not breastfed or fed for a short duration. Under nutrition can affect cognitive development by causing direct structural damage to the brain and by impairing infant motor development and exploratory behavior.


The processes and timing during postnatal brain development have important implications for understanding the range and the relative degree of severity of nutrient deficiencies. Nutrient deficiencies during the parental months usually cause irreversible effects on neurogenesis and synaptogenesis because these processes only occur during a specific programmed time in embryogenesis. Whereas nutrient deficiencies during postnatal development may induce errors that are reversible because of neural plasticity. Hence nutrient availability during the initial years can positively affect brain development across the postnatal life cycle.


Some of the important nutrients that have significant role in brain growth and development are Iron, Iodine and DHA.



There are several studies endorsing the role of iron in early infancy, especially with regard to cognitive development.  A primary role of oligodendrocytes is formation of myelin. These depend on availability of iron for normal function. During development, unavailability of iron has been shown to impede myelination. Since iron deficiency in early infancy can adversely affect myelination, there can be mild auditory and visual dysfunction that lasts long. There is poorer recognition memory and lower IQ scores when checked. 


According to a study performed by Betsy Logoff et al. On infants, a delay in gross motor development at 9 month of age was significantly higher in iron deficient infants as compared to iron sufficient infants. There were also results published on social emotional behavior. The iron deficient infants were shy, less soothable and showed less positive affect. 


Costa Rican adolescents who had chronic severe iron deficiency with or without anemia in infancy showed no catch up in motor development despite iron therapy in infancy, poorer executive functioning and recognition memory at age 19 years .A study of fortification of complementary feeding in China noted infants whose anemia was not corrected within 6 months had lower IQ at age 6 years than those whose anemia resolved.



Children born in iodine deficient areas are at a high risk of neurological disorders and mental retardation because of the combined effects of maternal, fetal and neonatal hypothyroxinemia. As iodine is required for thyroid hormone synthesis, iodine deficiency can cause hypothyroidism and consequently brain damage and mental retardation. According to a Meta analysis that included 2676 Participants mainly children, performed by Bleichrodt and published in 1994, the IQs of non-iodine deficient groups were on average 13.5 IQ points higher than those of iodine deficient groups.  The policy of universal iodization of salt was adopted and has proved to be successful in decreasing the incidence of iodine deficiency disorders.



DHA is the most abundant omega -3 fatty acid in the mammalian brain and its level in brain membrane  lipids is altered by the type and amount of fatty acids in the diet, and with life stage, increasing with development and decreasing with ageing. Intake is either as DHA itself or as its precursor, ALA and intermediates between the two, such as EPA. Synthesis of DHA and EPA occurs in phytoplankton and animals but not plants. DHA and EPA are not found in vegetable fats and oils, nuts, grains and seeds.


They are present in very low levels in milk and dairy products. The richest dietary sources include fish and sea food, but eggs and poultry provide lower but important sources of DHA and DPA. The major dietary source of ALA are soya bean and canola oils, flax seed oil and some nuts are also rich in ALA but they are not consumed in significant quantities consistently. It has been proved now through research that Docohasexaenoic acid enhances vision development during the 1st year of life.


The first 2 years of life is crucial in terms of reaching the possible potential in mental, social and physical growth right kind of nutrition holds the key to this. Thus the postnatal periods during which neural process occur can be labeled widows of sensitivity in the sense that they reflect an: “opportunity or exposure,” upon which nutrients or their lack of availability may exert an effect, rather than critical periods as in prenatal brain development.


Ø  First two years of life is when infant brain is growing rapidly. This window period has to be taken advantage of, in providing right kind of nutrition.

Ø  Iron, iodine and omega3 fatty acid play an important role in growing and development of brain in the initially years.

Ø  Future of an infant’s physical, mental and social growth is based on the right kind of nutrition provided during the first two years of life. 



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