I is required for the synthesis of thyroid hormones. These hormones, in turn, are required for brain development, which occurs during fetal and early postnatal life. The present paper reviews the impact of I deficiency (1) on thyroid function during pregnancy and in the neonate, and (2) on the intellectual development of infants and children. All extents of I deficiency (based on I intake (microgram/d); mild 50-99, moderate 20-49, severe > 20) affect the thyroid function of the mother and neonate, and the mental development of the child. The damage increases with the extent of the deficiency, with overt endemic cretinism as the severest consequence. This syndrome combines irreversible mental retardation, neurological damage and thyroid failure. Maternal hypothyroxinaemia during early pregnancy is a key factor in the development of the neurological damage in the cretin. Se deficiency superimposed on I deficiency partly prevents the neurological damage, but precipitates severe hypothyroidism in cretins. I deficiency results in a global loss of 10-15 intellectual quotient points at a population level, and constitutes the world's greatest single cause of preventable brain damage and mental retardation.