A central issue when designing multidimensional biological and psychosocial interventions for children who are exposed to multiple developmental risks is identification of the age period(s) in which such interventions will have the strongest and longest lasting effects (sensitive periods). In this paper, we review nutritional, neuroscientific, and psychological evidence on this issue. Nutritional evidence is used to identify nutrient-sensitive periods of age-linked dimensions of brain development, with specific reference to iron deficiency. Neuroscience evidence is used to assess the importance of timing of exposures to environmental stressors for maintaining neural, neuroendocrine, and immune systems integrity. Psychological evidence illustrates the sensitivity of cognitive and social-emotional development to contextual risk and protective influences encountered at different ages. Evidence reviewed documents that the early years of life are a sensitive period when biological or psychosocial interventions or exposure to risk or protective contextual influences can produce unique long-term influences upon human brain, neuroendocrine, and cognitive or psychosocial development. However, the evidence does not identify the early years as the sole sensitive time period within which to have a significant influence upon development. Choice of age(s) to initiate interventions should be based on what outcomes are targeted and what interventions are used.
Keywords: brain; developmental risk; early intervention; iron deficiency; sensitive periods; stress.
© 2013 New York Academy of Sciences.