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  • Adriano dos Santos

The role of nutrition in children's neurocognitive development

Cognition represents a complex set of higher mental functions subserved by the brain, and includes attention, memory, thinking, learning, and perception. Cognitive development in pre-schoolers is predictive of later school achievement.

“Schooling builds human capital - skills, abilities, and resources—which ultimately shapes health and well-being.” Ross and Mirowsky

Indeed, more education has been linked to better jobs, higher income, higher socio-economic status, better health care access and housing, better lifestyle, nutrition, and physical activity, which are all well-known health determinants. Education increases an individual's sense of personal control and self-esteem; these factors have also been shown to influence better health behavior. Academic achievement is important for future personal health, and is therefore a significant concern for public health.

Cognitive development is influenced by many factors, including nutrition. There is an increasing body of literature that suggests a connection between improved nutrition and optimal brain function. Nutrients provide building blocks that play a critical role in cell proliferation, DNA synthesis, neurotransmitter and hormone metabolism, and are important constituents of enzyme systems in the brain. Brain development is faster in the early years of life compared to the rest of the body, which may make it more vulnerable to dietary deficiencies.

Micronutrients and cognitive development

Omega-3 fatty acids

In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in the effect of essential fatty acids, particularly long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFA), on cognitive brain development. Of the human brain's dry weight 60% is comprised of lipids, of which 20% are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA; which is an omega-3 fatty acid) and arachidonic acid (AA; an omega-6 fatty acid).

Essential fatty acids play a central functional role in brain tissue. They are not only the basic components of neuronal membranes, but they modulate membrane fluidity and volume and thereby influence receptor and enzyme activities in addition to affecting ion channels. Essential fatty acids are also precursors for active mediators that play a key role in inflammation and immune reaction. They promote neuronal and dendritic spine growth and synaptic membrane synthesis, and hence influence signal processing, and neural transmission.

Vitamin B12, folic acid, and choline

B12 and folate deficiency resulting in anaemia is rare around the world. However, it can occur in both developing and developed countries especially in older people, in those with absorption problems and in vegetarians. Folate fortification of bread products has been made mandatory in Australia and in many other countries, which has reduced this deficiency significantly

In children, the association between vitamin B12 and cognitive development has been mainly observed in infants born of vegetarian/vegan mothers or mothers on a macrobiotic diet. These diets can result in vitamin B12 deficiency, as vitamin B12 is largely found in animal products. A pooled analysis that included 48 case studies of infants with vitamin B12 deficiencies reported a variety of abnormal clinical and radiological signs, including: hypotonic muscles, involuntary muscle movements, apathy, cerebral atrophy, and demyelination of nerve cells. After vitamin B12 treatment, a rapid improvement in neurological symptoms is reported in deficient infants, but many of these infants remained seriously delayed in cognitive and language development in the longer term.


Zinc deficiency appears to be a major problem worldwide, affecting 40% of the global population. Recent research suggests that toddlers, adolescents, older people and individuals with diabetes are possibly at a higher risk of zinc deficiency in Australia. It is believed that zinc is a vital nutrient for the brain, with important structural and functional roles. More specifically, zinc is a cofactor for more than 200 enzymes that regulate diverse metabolic activities in the body including protein, DNA and RNA synthesis. In addition, zinc plays a role in neurogenesis, maturation, and migration of neurons and in synapse formation.


One of the most common nutritional deficiencies in both developing and developed countries is iron deficiency. In some parts of the world, such as in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia, the prevalence is more than 40%. In developed countries—including Australia—it could be as high as 20%, particularly in pregnant women and in children. It is believed that iron is involved with different enzyme systems in the brain, including: the cytochrome c oxidase enzyme system in energy production, tyrosine hydroxylase for dopamine receptor synthesis, delta-9- desaturase for myelination, and fatty acid synthesis, and ribonucleotide reductase for brain growth regulation.


Iodine deficiency is a significant worldwide public health issue, especially in children and during pregnancy. In Australia, the majority of children and pregnant women are mildly deficient in iodine, with some groups reaching moderate to severe deficiency. Iodine deficiency in the soils in many countries has led to food fortification, most commonly the use of iodized salt. The relationship between iodine and cognitive development is extensively researched. It is well known today that severe iodine deficiency during pregnancy may cause “cretinism” in children. Iodine deficiency manifests in hypothyroidism, causing underproduction of thyroid hormones including triiodothyronin (T3) and thyroxin (T4). Thyroid hormones play an important role in neurodevelopment and numerous neurological processes including neuronal cell differentiation, maturation and migration, myelination, neurotransmission, and synaptic plasticity.

Multivitamin and mineral supplementation

Although it is important to investigate nutrients individually, deficiencies of nutrients rarely occur in isolation, and an inadequate diet typically causes multiple micronutrient deficiencies. In addition, nutrients interact with each other and do not work separately. Thus, it is important to investigate the association between multiple mineral and vitamins supplementation or deficiencies and cognitive development.


The majority of studies, which have investigated the association between nutrition and cognitive development, have focused on individual micronutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, folic acid, zinc, iron, and iodine. The evidence is more consistent from observational studies, which suggest these micronutrients play an important role in the cognitive development of children. However, the results from intervention trials of single nutrients are inconsistent and inconclusive, prompting the need for better controlled and more adequately powered studies in the future.

It is plausible that children living in poor countries may encounter more multiple micronutrient deficiencies, as opposed to children living in rich countries who are reasonably well nourished (and where a small deficiency in one nutrient may not result in measurable, long-term change in cognitive outcomes, due to compensation over time). These are important considerations, because nutrients do not act alone; rather, they have in some contexts synergistic and in other contexts antagonistic effects with each other.

Individuals consume combinations of food and poor overall diet can cause multiple macro-and micronutrient deficiencies and imbalances. If an overall healthy diet synergistically enhances cognitive development in children, then public health interventions should focus on the promotion of overall diet quality rather than isolated micronutrients or dietary components consumed by children and adolescents.

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