Early Life Nutrition For A Child's Optimal Neurocognitive Development

Emerging evidence indicates that the early life nutritional intake of a child is directly linked to their neurocognitive development. It is said that the first 1000 days of life represent the most crucial stage of neurodevelopment as maximum nervous system development occurs in this period. However, the central and peripheral nervous systems continue to develop and change all through life.
Nutrition plays a key role in modulating neurodevelopment. It is known that acute and chronic malnutrition can impair cognitive development and is more likely to lead to low IQ, attention, and behavioural problems.1 Observational studies indicate that chronic malnutrition may cause stunted growth and deficits in cognition and academic achievements in children from the age of 5 to adolescence.2 On the contrary, optimal nutrition can improve cognitive outcomes. A study has found that consuming a protein-rich diet and energy drinks showed higher cognitive scores at age 4-5, better vocabulary at age 11-18, improved reading capabilities and IQ scores at age 22-29 and a 46% increase in their average wages later in life (age 26-42) as compared to children who did not consume such diet.

Role of Supplements in Neurocognitive Development

Behavioural neuroscience, over the years, has proven that nutrition plays a key role in the development of neurocognition in the early stages of development. Formation of brain cells, migration, and differentiation, development of synaptic connectivity, myelination, and enablement of cells to communicate with one another, are aided by balanced nutritional intake. The consequences of nutritional deficiency vary depending upon the specificity and time of deficiency in correspondence to the neurological developmental processes at the time.3 Experimental studies between the years 1992 to 2016 that were conducted in developing countries (48 studies) for 29814 children indicated that childhood nutritional supplementation could improve children's cognitive function. The study shows that supplementation with five or more nutrients shows much stronger benefits compared to single nutrient supplementation. Supplementing with multiple nutrients is more likely to bridge the gap and prepare the foundation for subsequent brain development in early childhood. Childhood supplementation with zinc, calcium, vitamin B6 & B12, and proteins are particularly effective in improving cognitive outcomes.4

Vitamin B6 & B12

Vitamin B12 is essential for carbohydrate metabolism, membrane structure and function, and synaptic connectivity and action. Some studies indicate the deficiency of Vitamin B12 has a detrimental effect on myelination causing brain atrophy. Mild forms of vitamin B12 deficiency may lead to slower conduction in auditory and visual systems. This could interfere with social interaction in the long run, since the acquisition of cognitive skills coincides with the pattern of central nervous system myelination.5 Similarly, vitamin B6 deficiency was found to produce lower retention of electrolytes and decreased threshold of central nervous system activity.6


The effect of iron deficiency on the neurocognition of children has been well documented. Iron deficiency causes a serious impact on an infant’s physiological as well as cognitive health in the later stages of development like alteration of immune status, adverse effects on morbidity, delayed behavioural and mental development, and retardation in growth all of which indicate poor cognitive and motor development.7


The 4th most abundant ion in the brain, zinc, is involved in DNA and RNA synthesis, cellular growth, differentiation and metabolism, healing of wounds, and the metabolism of vitamin A. Less is known about the effects of deficiency of zinc on cognitive behaviour although the prevailing studies show that zinc deficiency in malnourished children hinders optimal growth and increases susceptibility to infections. Extremely low levels of zinc adversely affect gene expression, protein synthesis, immunity, and even skeletal growth and maturation.8


Iodine is necessary for the synthesis of thyroid hormones which play a crucial role in central nervous system development, neurogenesis, neuronal migration, axon and dendrite growth, synaptogenesis, and myelination. This articulates the fact that in case of a deficiency of iodine, the cognitive intelligence of a child will be negatively affected. Also, diseases like goitre, hypothyroidism, congenital anomalies, and impaired growth were observed in children suffering from iodine deficiency.9 

Optimizing Neurocognitive Functions with Essential Micronutrients

Due to their extensive role in neurocognitive development in infants, micronutrients should be incorporated into daily diet, to aid in the overall effective growth and nourishment of the body. Here is a list of the reference daily intakes (RDI) required for optimal neurocognitive development by the FDA.10

Micronutrients play a crucial role in the development of neurocognition and intelligence. The role of micronutrients in disease prevention and optimal well-being of a child is vital too. Children need to be, therefore, supplemented with all the essential micronutrients that are necessary for their optimal growth and development.


1. Nyaradi, A. and Li, J., 2013. The role of nutrition in children's neurocognitive development, from pregnancy through childhood. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7(97). 
2. Prado, E. and Dewey, K., 2014. Nutrition and brain development in early life. Nutrition Reviews, 72(4), pp.267-284.
3.Black, M., 2008. Effects of vitamin B12 and folate deficiency on brain development in children. Food and Nutrition Bulletin, 29(2), pp.S126-S1.13 
4. Ip, P., Ho, F., Rao, N., Sun, J., Young, M., Chow, C., Tso, W. and Hon, K., 2017. Impact of nutritional supplements on cognitive development of children in developing countries: A meta-analysis. Scientific Reports, 7(1).
5. Smith, A., 2016. Hippocampus as a mediator of the role of vitamin B-12 in memory. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 103(4), pp.959-960.
6. Spinneker, A. and Sola, R., 2007. Vitamin B6 status, deficiency and its consequences - an overview. Nutricion Hospitalaria, 22(1), pp.7-24
7. Hermoso, M., Vucic, V., et al., 2011. The Effect of Iron on Cognitive Development and Function in Infants, Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 59(2-4), pp.154-165.
8. Mamun, M. and Ghani, R., 2017. The role of iron and zinc in cognitive development of children. Asian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, 3(2), pp.145-151.
9. Prado, E. and Dewey, K., 2014. Nutrition and brain development in early life. Nutrition Reviews, 72(4), pp.267-284.
10. Fda.gov. 2022. [online] Available at: <https://www.fda.gov/media/99069/download>