Reliance on animal experiments rather than human observations delayed a full realisation that lack of food early in life can harm the brain. During the first quarter of the 20th century, there was considerable interest in the possibility that lack of food during childhood might interfere with the proper development of the brain and therefore affect later achievement of the individual. Unfortunately, almost all the research was carried out on animals and showed that starving baby or adult rats had no effect on the brain. Not surprisingly, the topic was abandoned and only resumed in the late 1950s when children with histories of undernutrition were persistently found to underachieve, both in school and in formal tests.(1)
Researchers then realised that the early animal tests had failed since no account had been taken of the "brain growth spurt". This is the period of fastest growth when the brain is at its most vulnerable. Furthermore, the exact timing varies between the species: in human babies the brain growth spurt begins during the final stage of pregnancy and proceeds through to at least a year; in guinea pigs, it occurs almost entirely during the foetal period; and in rats it happens during the first 3 weeks after birth.(2)
Despite millions of underfed and malnourished people,"early life undernutrition" remains a popular subject among animal researchers. Unlike current aid levels to developing nations, there seems no shortage of funds for such research: indeed, one justification is that, someday, it might better enable us to give relief to the starving!(3)
1) J.Dobbing in Early Nutrition & Later Behaviour, Ed. J.Dobbing (Academic Press, 1987).
2) J.Dobbing & J.L.Smart, British Medical Bulletin, 1974, vol.30, 164-168.
3) J.L.Smart in ref 1.
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