Nutrition has been shown to affect intelligence prenatally and postnatally. The idea that prenatal nutrition may affect intelligence comes from Barker’s hypothesis of fetal programming, which states that during critical stages of development the intrauterine environment affects or ‘programmes’ how the child will develop. Barker cited nutrition as being one of the most important intrauterine influences affecting development and that under-nutrition could permanently change the physiology and development of the child. It has been shown that under-nutrition, particularly protein malnutrition, can lead to irregular brain maturation and learning disabilities.
As prenatal nutrition is difficult to measure, birth weight has been used as a surrogate marker of nutrition in many studies. Birth weight needs to be corrected for gestational length to ensure that the effects are due to nutrition and not prematurity. The first longitudinal study looking at the effects of under-nutrition, as measured by birth weight, and intelligence focused on males who were born during the Dutch famine. The results indicated that there were no effects of under-nutrition on intellectual development. However, many studies since have found a significant relationship and a meta-analysis by Shenkin and colleagues indicates that birth weight is associated with scores on intelligence tests in childhood.
Post-natal malnutrition can also have a significant influence on intellectual development. This relationship has been harder to establish because the issue of malnutrition is often conflated with socioeconomic issues. However, it has been demonstrated in a few studies where pre-schoolers in two Guatemalan villages (where undernourishment is common) were given protein nutrition supplements for several years, and even in the lowest socioeconomic class, those children showed an increase in performance on intelligence tests, relative to controls with no dietary supplement.
Malnutrition has been shown to affect organizational processes of the brain such as neurogenesis, synaptic pruning, cell migration and cellular differentiation. This thus results in abnormalities in the formation of neural circuits and the development of neurotransmitter systems. However, some of these effects of malnutrition have been shown to be improved upon with a good diet and environment. Early nutrition can also affect brain structures that are actually correlated to IQ levels. Specifically, the caudate nucleus is particularly affected by early environmental factors and its volume correlates with IQ. In an experiment by Isaacs et al., infants born prematurely were either assigned a standard or high-nutrient diet during the weeks directly after birth. When the individuals were assessed later in adolescence, it was found that the high-nutrient group had significantly larger caudate volumes and scored significantly higher on verbal IQ tests. This study also found that the extent to which the caudate volume size related selectively to verbal IQ was much greater in male participants, and not very significant in females. This may help explain the finding in other earlier research that the effects of early diet on intelligence are more predominant in males.
Another study done by Lucas et al. confirms the conclusions about the importance of nutrition in the cognitive development of individuals born prematurely. It also found that the cognitive function of males was significantly more impaired by poorer postnatal nutrition. A unique finding however, was that there was a higher incidence of cerebral palsy in the individuals who were fed the non-nutrient enhanced formula.
Breast feeding has long been purported to supply important nutrients to infants and has been correlated with increased cognitive gains later in childhood. The link between intelligence and breast feeding has even been shown to persist into adulthood. However this view has been challenged in recent times by studies which have found no such link between breast feeding and cognitive abilities. A meta-analysis by Der, batty and Deary concluded that there was no link between IQ and breastfeeding when maternal intelligence had been accounted for and that mothers' intelligence is likely to be the link between breastfeeding and intelligence. a
Contrary to this, when controlling for other environmental influences and maternal IQ, a study by Johnson et al. still found that the initiation of breast feeding predicted the scores of three-year-olds on intelligence tests. On average, breast feeding resulted in a 4.6 higher score on intelligence tests. Thus even when maternal IQ is considered, the relationship between breastfeeding and later cognitive abilities persisted.
Other studies have indicated that breast feeding may be particularly important for children born Small for Gestational Age (SGA). A study by Slykerman et al. found that there was no association between breast feeding and higher intelligence in their full sample but that when looking only at SGA babies there was a significant increase in intelligence for those who had been breastfed over those who had not.
A 2007 study provides a possible resolution to the different results found across studies investigating breastfeeding’s effect on intelligence. Caspi et al. found that whether breast feeding increased IQ was linked to whether the infant had a certain variant of the FADS2 gene. Children with the C variant of the gene showed an IQ advantage of 7 points when breastfed, whereas those with the GG variant showed no IQ advantages with breastfeeding. However, other studies have failed to replicate this result.
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“Men have their own questions, and they differ from those of mothers. New mothers are more interested in nutrition and vulnerability to illness while fathers tend to ask about when they can take their babies out of the house or how much sleep babies really need.”
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