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Iron deficiency early in life could have consequences later, study says

Iron deficiency early in life could have consequences later, study says

Recent research done with piglets suggests that iron deficiency early in life may have long-lasting consequences for the brain.

Iron deficiency early in life could have consequences later, study says

In the first four weeks of a piglet’s life – equivalent to roughly four months in a human infant – iron deficiency impairs the development of key brain structures, a new study reveals. Abnormalities remain even after weeks of iron supplementation begun later in life, researchers found.

The study, reported in the journey Nutrients adds to the evidence that iron deficiency early in life can have long-lasting consequences for the brain. The analysis relied on neuroimaging to study the piglets’ brains as they matured, and focused on specific brain regions most affected by iron-deficient diets. The use of neuroimaging was part of an effort to find noninvasive ways of studying pig brain development that could also be applied in humans.

The reason pigs are useful models for studies related to human health is that they have some of the same nutrient and metabolic requirements as humans, Austin Mudd, a graduate student in the neuroscience program at the University of Illinois said. This is the same reason that new infant formula is tested on piglets before they can be given to human babies. Additionally, pigs also have anatomically similar brains to humans.

Pigs and humans also appear to respond in similar ways to dietary deficiencies – in particular, iron deficiencies, University of Illinois animal sciences professor Ryan Dilger, who co-led the study, said.

According to Dilger, iron deficiency in humans is the most prolific deficiency the world.

“Research in humans has shown that iron deficiency early in life results in delayed motor development by 10 months of age, delayed cognitive processing by 10 years of age, altered recognition memory and executive functions at 19 years of age, and poorer emotional health in the mid-twenties,” the researchers wrote.

By comparing piglets with and without iron-deficient diets in the first four weeks of life, and then again at eight weeks after all received sufficient iron for four weeks, the researchers were able to determine whether the brain anomalies seen at four weeks persisted after the iron-deficient piglets’ diets were corrected.

After analysing the data it was found that the brains of iron-deficient piglets did not fully recover. They had reduced iron content in several brain regions, including the left hippocampus, a region essential to learning and memory. Giving the piglets an iron-replete diet for another four weeks did not appear to increase the iron content of these brain regions.

The iron-deficient piglets also had structural deficiencies in their grey matter and white matter in several brain regions at four and eight weeks.

“Essentially what we found in this study is that there is a critical window in development for providing iron, and that window is immediately after birth,” Mudd said. More research must be done to determine if this is also true for human infants, he said.

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