Malnutrition and Infant Brain Development

An unmentioned consequence of the pandemic.

Posted Aug 13, 2020

One of the main known causes of intellectual disability (ID, formerly known as mental retardation) is malnutrition, which does its damage in two ways: affecting the developing fetus through mothers who are inadequately nourished during their pregnancy, and affecting infants and young children who are inadequately nourished when they are going through critical periods of brain development, such as the first year of life.

In some countries, malnutrition may be the biggest known cause of ID. It is less of a problem in countries such as the US, where a greater cause of ID is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD, caused by moms who binge drink when pregnant). However, FASD is also a big problem in places such as rural South Africa, which has the world’s highest rate of FASD partly due to Apartheid-era plantations that are still around and which pay their farm workers partly in alcohol.

Prenatal impact of both maternal alcohol ingestion and malnutrition are especially strong during the first 10 weeks (when many women do not yet know they are pregnant), although both continue to be risk factors later on. 

While drugs (such as crack cocaine) get more press, alcohol is a much worse teratogen (chemical that affects fetuses). In fact, people who do crack usually also do alcohol, and so-called “crack babies” more likely are actually “alcohol babies.” Non-stimulation is another obvious external cause (it is why Project Head Start was established), but this mainly works in combination with external physical risk factors. Except in extreme cases of zero stimulation (so-called feral children locked away in closets), non-stimulation by itself does not cause ID, and even in feral child examples, biological factors are likely what caused a very disturbed parent to lock an already brain-impaired child away.    

But it is an overgeneralization to imply that malnutrition is not a problem affecting infant brain development in the U.S. or other first world countries. In fact, there has always been much poverty in the U.S., and poverty obviously affects the ability to feed oneself or one’s child. I see this in my main consulting activity, which involves testifying about defendants with possible ID in death penalty trials. In looking at records or interviewing witnesses, I often run across cases where poor families traded their food stamps for cigarettes or drugs, and children who ended up being charged as adults with serious crimes (sometimes by gullibly going along with a more competent confederate) went to bed hungry every night or were fed extremely poorly.

I was once in a poor neighborhood in Buffalo, New York to interview the family of someone who grew up there and ended up on death row in another state. In the rubble-strewn streets, which resembled Berlin or Tokyo after World War II, I drove for a couple of miles in every direction without seeing anything resembling a grocery store, and a windowless drug store that looked like a fortress lacked fresh produce or anything with nutritional value.   

Which brings me to the pandemic. One of the benefits of schooling is that poor children get calorically adequate (and in a few enlightened places, nutritionally excellent) lunches and, if they are poor enough, breakfasts. As schools are closed and stop feeding children (although some still offer meals even while closed) and unemployment is now at levels comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930s, malnutrition is a serious threat to the brain development of children.

There is research to back up my concern in this matter. It involves the Netherlands, where the German-occupied nation experienced a years-long famine, during the middle and later stages of WWII. It is estimated that the national IQ of the country (with the biggest impact on children affected during the first gestational trimester) was lowered by a few points, with effects taking a couple of generations to recover from.

I am concerned that the discussion of the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. has not, for the most part, addressed the tragic country-wide consequence of poverty-caused malnutrition. Whatever one believes about the state of U.S. greatness (already great or needing to be made greater), it is unlikely to be maintained if America’s children experience widespread brain maldevelopment due to inadequate nutrition.

Copyright Stephen Greenspan.