Nutrition and brain development in early life

Nutr Rev. 2014 Apr;72(4):267-84. doi: 10.1111/nure.12102. Epub 2014 Mar 28.


Presented here is an overview of the pathway from early nutrient deficiency to long-term brain function, cognition, and productivity, focusing on research from low- and middle-income countries. Animal models have demonstrated the importance of adequate nutrition for the neurodevelopmental processes that occur rapidly during pregnancy and infancy, such as neuron proliferation and myelination. However, several factors influence whether nutrient deficiencies during this period cause permanent cognitive deficits in human populations, including the child's interaction with the environment, the timing and degree of nutrient deficiency, and the possibility of recovery. These factors should be taken into account in the design and interpretation of future research. Certain types of nutritional deficiency clearly impair brain development, including severe acute malnutrition, chronic undernutrition, iron deficiency, and iodine deficiency. While strategies such as salt iodization and micronutrient powders have been shown to improve these conditions, direct evidence of their impact on brain development is scarce. Other strategies also require further research, including supplementation with iron and other micronutrients, essential fatty acids, and fortified food supplements during pregnancy and infancy.

Keywords: brain development; child development; infancy; nutrition; pregnancy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Female
  • Food, Fortified
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Iodine / administration & dosage
  • Iodine / physiology
  • Iron / administration & dosage
  • Iron / physiology
  • Iron Deficiencies
  • Male
  • Micronutrients / deficiency
  • Micronutrients / physiology*
  • Minerals / administration & dosage
  • Models, Animal
  • Nutritional Requirements
  • Nutritional Status*
  • Pregnancy
  • Sodium Chloride, Dietary / administration & dosage
  • Trace Elements / administration & dosage
  • Trace Elements / deficiency


  • Micronutrients
  • Minerals
  • Sodium Chloride, Dietary
  • Trace Elements
  • iodized salt
  • Iodine
  • Iron