New Study Links Infant Stunting to Differences in Cognitive and Brain Function

Infant Baby Brain Illustration

Research have found that children with stunted growth can experience reduced cognitive ability due to early brain function differences, noticeable from as early as six months. The study focused on ‘visual working memory’ and found that infants with poor growth are more easily distracted, affecting their cognitive abilities one year later. While previous studies had made similar connections for older children, this is the first to observe such associations in infancy. The findings emphasize the need for early interventions to enhance cognitive abilities and the significance of studying early brain function.

According to recent research from the University of East Anglia, children who are too short for their age can suffer reduced cognitive ability arising from differences in brain function as early as six months of age.

Study Findings and Comparisons

Researchers compared the ‘visual working memory’ – the memory capacity that holds visual cues for processing – in children who had stunted growth with those having typical growth.

Published today in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, the study found that the visual working memory of infants with poor physical growth was disrupted, making them more easily distracted and setting the stage for poorer cognitive ability one year later.

Stunted growth had previously been linked with poor cognitive outcomes later in life, but this is the first time that this association has been found in infancy. It is also the first time stunted growth has been linked to functional differences in how the brain works in early development.

Details of the Research

Led by Prof John Spencer of UEA’s School of Psychology, the team of researchers studied more than 200 children in the first-ever brain imaging study of its kind.

“We expected that poor growth might impact cognition in early development, but it was striking to see this at the level of brain function,” said Prof Spencer.

“Typically-developing infants in our study showed engagement of a working memory brain network – and this brain activity predicted cognitive outcomes one year later. But the stunted infants showed a very different pattern suggesting that they were quite distractable.”

“This distractability was associated with a brain network typically involved in the allocation of attention to objects or tasks, suppressing distraction, and maintaining items in working memory,” said Dr Sobana Wijeakumar, first author of the study. Dr. Wijeakumar is an Assistant Professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Nottingham.

Key Outcomes and Future Implications

The brain activity and cognitive abilities of the infants were assessed at six to nine months, and cognitive ability was followed up one year later. The results showed that infants with so-called ‘stunted growth’, often caused by poor nutrition or ill health, had significantly poorer cognitive abilities at both stages than their typically-developing counterparts.

Interestingly, the children who bucked the trend and did well in their second year of cognitive testing despite having restricted growth were those whose visual memory had been unexpectedly strong at the six to nine months stage.  

The discovery suggests that efforts to improve working memory and tackle distractibility in children during their crucial early months may reduce or prevent cognitive disadvantages later in life. This research also highlights the importance of studying brain function in early development.

Reference: “Stunting in infancy is associated with atypical activation of working memory and attention networks” by Sobanawartiny Wijeakumar, Samuel H. Forbes, Vincent A. Magnotta, Sean Deoni, Kiara Jackson, Vinay P. Singh, Madhuri Tiwari, Aarti Kumar and John P. Spencer, 26 October 2023, Nature Human Behaviour.
DOI: 10.1038/s41562-023-01725-3

The research was led by the University of East Anglia in collaboration with the University of Nottingham, the Community Empowerment Lab, Durham University, University of Iowa, Rhode Island Hospital, Brown University, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

This publication is based on research funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The findings and conclusions contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Further funding came from the US National Institutes of Health and the Leverhulme Trust.

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