Brain Health,

#127: Building Better Baby Brains

May 06, 2016

Just in time for Mother’s Day, the impact of maternal nutrition on infant development…

There’s a close link between maternal health and fetal development — both physical and cognitive — not that anyone is surprised.  Nutritional deficiencies in pregnancy can lead to serious health problems for infants, and have been implicated in increasing children’s chances of developing chronic diseases like Type 2 Diabetes, stroke, and hypertension.

On the cognitive side, deficiencies can lead to low IQ and intellectual disabilities, impacting cognitive function up to 20%.  The development of the fetal brain is rapid — by the first trimester, much of the neurogenesis (creation of brain cells) process of the fetus has already taken shape.  Unfortunately, entering pregnancy with micronutritional deficiencies can have long-lasting consequences for the fetus.

Bouncing Back?

Children can sometimes recover from micronutrient deficiencies, depending on…

  • The severity of the deficiency
  • The number of deficient micronutrients (one is obviously better than many)
  • The micronutrient that is deficient.  For example, even a mild iodine deficiency during gestation results in irreversible damage to cognition and memory.
  • The timing.  Deficiencies during the gestational period carry a greater impact than deficiencies in later childhood, which can often be reversed to a large degree.

Fetal Development in Developing Countries

Dr. Kavitha Menon has spent decades researching maternal health and its impact on fetal growth and development.  In her home country of India, multiple micronutrient deficiencies are common throughout the population, but impact infants the hardest.

In Episode 127, Dr. Menon talks to Jesse about her research into maternal nutrition and fetal development, plus her mission to bring better nutrition to young women of childbearing age, protecting their infants’ brains.  But what she’s learned doesn’t just apply to women in the developing world…

Pop Those Pills

Even comparatively well-nourished women in developed countries can’t overlook micronutrients in the months before and during pregnancy.  While a full list of essential micronutrients during pregnancy is beyond our expertise (there are no babies at Smart Drug Smarts HQ, not counting the kittens), deficiencies in iodine, iron, and selenium are more common than you’d think.

Seriously, if you’re trying to get pregnant, just start taking a prenatal vitamin.  If you’re micronutrient deficient and you only correct it after realizing you’re pregnant, some permanent damage may have been done to your baby’s cognitive function.  The good news is that for most micronutrients, supplementing will take you back to baseline within a month.

Two important micronutrients for cognitive development to watch out for are iron and iodine. Iodine deficiency can easily shave 10 points off a child’s IQ (damage that lasts a lifetime).  Iron is necessary for neurogenesis and myelination (essential for the nervous system to work properly).

The best way to protect your baby’s brain? (None of this is rocket science.)

  • Eat a varied diet, including fortified foods
  • Take prenatal supplements
  • Cook with an iron skillet, which helps to improve iron levels

One More Thing For a Smarter Baby

Maintain a healthy weight.  Carrying excess body weight carries many health risks for both mother and child.  In terms of cognition, one of the biggest risks is intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR), which is associated with neurodevelopmental disorders, including lower IQ, and memory and learning deficiencies.

Oops!  A Point of Clarification

Any armchair endocrinologists out there?  If so, you may have caught the accidental reversal of the relationship between iodine and thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) about two-thirds of the way into the podcast.  Dr. Menon wanted to clarify the point that when a person is deficient in iodine, the levels of TSH actually increase (not decrease).

PS:  Just because you’re no longer a fetus doesn’t mean your brain has stopped developing.  Make the most of it with our weekly brain boosting email.

Show Notes
  • 00:00:22

    Happy Mother’s day from Smart Drug Smarts

  • 00:01:20

    This Week in Neuroscience: Breast milk linked to significant early brain growth

  • 00:03:53

    The audience interaction section

  • 00:05:55

    Introduction to Dr. Kavitha Menon

  • 00:07:15

    Maternal and infant nutrition optimization

  • 00:09:30

    Adequate nutrition during pregnancy and its impact on healthy cognitive development

  • 00:10:40

    Behavioral programs to encourage nutritional health before gestation

  • 00:13:46

    How long does it take to improve a deficiency?

  • 00:14:40

    Can babies neurologically bounce back from deficiencies after conception and birth?

  • 00:15:42

    The most important thing to focus on: “catch them when they’re young”

  • 00:17:23

    Iron and iodine

  • 00:21:21

    Three things to watch for when trying to become a mother

  • 00:22:33

    Body weight during pregnancy

  • 00:23:43

    Dr. Menon’s biggest surprises during her career

  • 00:27:21

    The effects of vegetarianism on mental neural development

  • 00:28:45

    Nutritional education and habits, and access to quality food

  • 00:33:17

    Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick: More Kids, Longer Life?


  1. advancedatheist says:

    You have to start with the genome for a high IQ. All these interventions later can’t make dumb babies smart.

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      I think you’re missing the point. This episode’s topics are about making sure babies reach their genetic baseline — whether their genes endow them with an IQ of 80 or 180 or anywhere in between. Early malnourishment in terms of either macronutrients or micronutrients will keep them from developing to their full potential, regardless of what that potential is.

  2. Andrew says:

    Very true Jesse.Nutrition is very important for the foetal brain.DHA found in Omega 3s are crucial for
    babies also.
    Omega 3 and iodine are key nutrients why humans
    became the most intelligent species.

    Keep up the good work mate!Best app on my phone

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      Thanks Andrew! If you didn’t hear Episode #51, you might like it: Dr. Michael Crawford goes into heavy detail on the importance of Omega-3s for young brains. In many ways these two are sister episodes.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to top