How Malnutrition Affects the Brain

Inadequate intake of essential vitamins and nutrients has repercussions on the entire body. One of the most concerning is the effects malnutrition can have on the brain. This organ -- in charge of thinking, emotions and instigating bodily functions -- needs proper nutrition from the time you're in the womb through old age. Failure to provide the brain with nourishment can have lasting consequences. Childhood malnutrition may cause problems in later years.

Brain Development

Maternal nutrition plays a critical role in babies' brain development. As infants continue to grow, the brain is also changing substantially. The neurons, or nerve cells, babies are born with adapt and respond to their new environment, making connections central to development. Thousands of these neural connections -- called synapses -- develop and change as children progress in age. For instance, infants as young as two months old start taking notice of objects in their environment due to neural activity involving vision. Poor nutrition, however, can slow or limit these complex brain activities.

Learning Disabilities

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Malnutrition is a risk factor for developing learning disabilities. Low birth weight -- which may stem from poor maternal nutrition -- may also raise the risk of developing these neurological conditions. Deficiency in the mineral iron, in particular, may increase the chances of developing a learning disability. These neurological conditions affect how the brain learns and responds to certain situations. For instance, structural differences in the brain may affect the ability to read or understand mathematical concepts. Some people with learning disabilities have trouble with cognitive function or responding to social cues.

Mental Retardation

Continual or severe malnutrition limits brain growth and may result in mental retardation. People who are mentally retarded have abnormal levels of cognitive and mental functioning. This affects their ability to learn and master the tasks of daily living. Children who don't have normal motor skills or are slow to meet developmental milestones may have some level of retardation. Less severe cases, however, may not be observed until they are in school and are unable to take on academic activities.

Geriatric Effects

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Childhood malnutrition may cause cognitive problems in later life as well, according to a 2010 study in the journal "Social Science & Medicine." Dr. Zhenmei Zhang and her fellow researchers evaluated data from 15,444 elderly people who participated in the Chinese Longitudinal Healthy Longevity Survey. They found that elderly men who experienced childhood malnourishment had a 29 percent greater likelihood of having cognitive impairment after age 65; women in the same age group were 35 percent more likely to have reduced brain function.