Adequate nutrition is essential for key neurodevelopmental processes that enhances growth and brain development for your child. The pregnancy and infancy period are crucial for brain formation, which affects cognitive development and socio-emotional skills throughout life.

Nutritional deficiencies in the early days of life are likely to affect cognition, behaviour, and productivity throughout school and adulthood. It is imperative to prevent nutrient deficiency in early life (1,2).

Key Neurodevelopmental Processes graph. illustrating the effects of undernutrition on children's motor, cognitive, and socioemotional development
Figure. Effects of undernutrition on children’s motor, cognitive, and socioemotional development

Is there a link between nutrients and brain development in early life?

The human brain in it’s first year reaches 72% of its adult size while the brain volume achieved at the end of the first is related to later life intelligence (2,3).

The brain develops rapidly in the first few years of life through the five main neurodevelopmental processes:

  1. Neuron proliferation
  2. Axon and dendrite growth
  3. Synapse formation, pruning, and function
  4. Myelination
  5. Neuron apoptosis

There have been several studies to evaluate the relationship between nutritional status and brain development in the early days of life. The neurodevelopmental processes are influenced by nutrient deficiencies and can lead to adverse outcomes.

Neuron Proliferation

This process begins at week 7 of gestation and continues for at least 4-5 months postpartum (4,5).

Studies show that infants with protein-energy malnutrition exhibited fewer brain cells than well-nourished infants, in the case of gestational DHA deficiency, reduced neuron proliferation was observed. In conclusion, Choline that is important for stem cell proliferation and needed to form the fetus and its supplementation during neurogenesis – enhances proliferation and differentiation (5).

Axon Growth

This process starts during gestation and lasts till two years after birth.

Studies show 3–4 months’ infants with moderate malnutrition had reduced dendritic span and arborization compared to well-nourished infants. Also, a higher level of education possesses more dendritic branching than lower education in Wernicke’s area that performs language processing (5).

Synapse formation, pruning, and function

Synapse formation starts at gestation and lasts throughout the lifetime. Overproduction of synapse ends in the second year after birth. However, synaptic pruning begins at 12 months after birth and continues through adolescence. Arachidonic acid and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) at membrane synaptic sites undergo the maturation of synapses and aids in neurotransmission. Zinc regulates postsynaptic N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors for glutamate and inhibits gamma-aminobutyric acid B (GABAB) receptor activation. The neurotransmitter acetylcholine (synthesized from choline) has long-term effects on cholinergic neurotransmission despite repletion (5).

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Myelination begins during third trimester and lasts till adulthood. LCPUFAs like DHA are an important component of prenatal and postnatal fatty acid deficiency by altering the composition of myelin.

Very important to note that even borderline iron deficiency during prenatal and postnatal development reduces myelin synthesis and changes its design, which is not corrected with iron repletion (5).


Apoptosis is programmed cell death, and about half of the cells die through a variety of mechanisms. The rate of apoptosis increases with gestational choline deficiency in the hippocampus (5).

In conclusion, it is thus important to check the individual contribution of nutrients, and adequate amount of micro and macronutrients in the food matrix for normal neurocognitive development.


  1. Cohen Kadosh K, Muhardi L, Parikh P, Basso M, Jan Mohamed HJ, Prawitasari T, Samuel F, Ma G, Geurts JM. Nutritional Support of Neurodevelopment and Cognitive Function in Infants and Young Children—An Update and Novel Insights. Nutrients. 2021 Jan;13(1):199.
  2. Anjos T, Altmäe S, Emmett P, Tiemeier H, Closa-Monasterolo R, Luque V, Wiseman S, Pérez-García M, Lattka E, Demmelmair H, Egan B. Nutrition and neurodevelopment in children: focus on NUTRIMENTHE project. European journal of nutrition. 2013 Dec 1;52(8):1825-42.
  3. An MRI-based morphometric analysis in 3 to 13 month olds. Cereb Cortex. 2013;23:2100–2117.
  4. Ackerman S. The Development and Shaping of the Brain. Discovering the Brain. 1992:86-103.
  5. Gale CR, O’Callaghan FJ, Bredow M, Martyn CN, Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children Study Team. The influence of head growth in fetal life, infancy, and childhood on intelligence at the ages of 4 and 8 years. Pediatrics. 2006;118:1486–1492

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