Stunted Growth in Infants Reshapes Brain Function and Cognitive Outcomes

Summary: Research reveals that infants with stunted growth show cognitive ability disruptions as early as six months.

The study demonstrates that visual working memory in these infants is compromised, leading to higher distractibility and poor cognitive outcomes by age one. This is the first time stunted growth has been linked to functional brain differences in infancy.

The findings underscore the importance of early intervention to counter cognitive disadvantages later on.

Key Facts:

  1. Stunted growth in infants can impact cognitive abilities from as early as six months.
  2. This study is the first to show that stunted growth is connected to functional brain differences in early development.
  3. Infants with unexpectedly strong visual memory at six to nine months, despite stunted growth, fared better in cognitive testing in their second year.

Source: 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, according to new research from the University of East Anglia.

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.

This shows a baby and a model of the brain.
This research also highlights the importance of studying brain function in early development. Credit: Neuroscience News

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.

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.

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.

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.

‘Stunting in infancy is associated with atypical activation of working memory and attention networks’ is published by Nature Human Behaviour.

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 positions or policies of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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

About this child development and cognition research news

Author: Lisa Horton
Source: University of East Anglia
Contact: Lisa Horton – University of East Anglia
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Closed access.
Stunting in infancy is associated with atypical activation of working memory and attention networks” by John Spencer et al. Nature Human Behavior


Stunting in infancy is associated with atypical activation of working memory and attention networks

Stunting is associated with poor long-term cognitive, academic and economic outcomes, yet the mechanisms through which stunting impacts cognition in early development remain unknown.

In a first-ever neuroimaging study conducted on infants from rural India, we demonstrate that stunting impacts a critical, early-developing cognitive system—visual working memory. Stunted infants showed poor visual working memory performance and were easily distractible.

Poor performance was associated with reduced engagement of the left anterior intraparietal sulcus, a region involved in visual working memory maintenance and greater suppression in the right temporoparietal junction, a region involved in attentional shifting.

When assessed one year later, stunted infants had lower problem-solving scores, while infants of normal height with greater left anterior intraparietal sulcus activation showed higher problem-solving scores.

Finally, short-for-age infants with poor physical growth indices but good visual working memory performance showed more positive outcomes suggesting that intervention efforts should focus on improving working memory and reducing distractibility in infancy.

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