The Role of Iron in Brain Development: A Systematic Review

Nutrients. 2020 Jul 5;12(7):2001. doi: 10.3390/nu12072001.


One-third of children falter in cognitive development by pre-school age. Iron plays an important role in many neurodevelopmental processes, and animal studies suggest that iron sufficiency in pregnancy and infancy is particularly important for neurodevelopment. However, it is not clear whether iron deficiency directly impacts developmental outcomes, and, if so, whether impact differs by timing of exposure or developmental domain. We searched four databases for studies on iron deficiency or iron supplementation in pregnancy, or at 0-6 months, 6-24 months, or 2-4 years of age. All studies included neurodevelopmental assessments in infants or children up to 4 years old. We then qualitatively synthesized the literature. There was no clear relationship between iron status and developmental outcomes across any of the time windows or domains included. We identified a large quantity of low-quality studies, significant heterogeneity in study design and a lack of research focused on pregnancy and early infancy. In summary, despite good mechanistic evidence for the role of iron in brain development, evidence for the impact of iron deficiency or iron supplementation on early development is inconsistent. Further high-quality research is needed, particularly within pregnancy and early infancy, which has previously been neglected.

Keywords: brain development; cognitive; infancy; iron deficiency; motor; pre-school; pregnancy; socio-emotional.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anemia, Iron-Deficiency / complications
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Dietary Supplements*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Nutritional Physiological Phenomena / drug effects*
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Iron / metabolism*
  • Iron Deficiencies
  • Iron, Dietary / administration & dosage*
  • Male
  • Maternal Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Neurodevelopmental Disorders / etiology
  • Nutritional Status
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Care


  • Iron, Dietary
  • Iron