Food and Behaviour Research

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Behavioral Effects of Childhood Malnutrition

Galler AR, Waber D, Harrison R, Ramsey F (2005) American Journal Of Psychiatry 162 1760-b-1761 

Web URL: View this and related abstracts via PubMed here.


We read with interest the recent article by Jianghong Liu, Ph.D., et al. (1).

For the past 35 years, we have been studying behavioral outcomes of Barbadian children with histories of protein-energy malnutrition or kwashiorkor in their first year of life and a healthy comparison group, classmates of the index children (2). The children had adequate birth weights and no repeat episodes of malnutrition and were followed by the National Nutrition Centre through age 11. The children were assessed extensively through age 18 and are now being reexamined by us at 32-37 years of age.

Using both teacher and parent behavior checklists at several ages, we documented attentional deficits in 60% of the children with histories of malnutrition versus 15% of the comparison group, lasting at least until age 18 (3-5). Other behaviors reported by us that were associated with infantile malnutrition included increased aggressive behavior at ages 9-15 (4) and poor socialization at ages 5-11 (3).

Our concern with the study by Liu and colleagues is that it did not distinguish between the effects of chronic and acute malnutrition, the timing of the malnutrition, or the different forms of childhood malnutrition. Nutritional status was documented only at age 3; medical care before and after this age was not analyzed.

It is well known that malnutrition during critical periods of brain development (from the second trimester of pregnancy to age 2) is associated with permanent deficits in brain and behavioral function, whereas malnutrition experienced after this period does not produce permanent deficits (6).

Moreover, the authors were unable to eliminate the presence of continuing health and nutritional problems after age 3 as contributing to the observed behaviors. The definition of malnutrition used in this study is very unconventional. Heights and weights, standard measures of nutritional status, were not included despite a prior article by these authors that included heights and weights (7). Especially confusing is that the taller and heavier children (who were therefore presumably not malnourished) in their earlier study showed more aggression, conflicting with findings in the current study of more aggression in "malnourished" children. Finally, the term "dose-response," ordinarily used to describe quantitative differences on a single construct when the authors actually meant one or more comorbid conditions, was misleading.

1. Liu J, Raine A, Venables PH, Mednick SA: Malnutrition at age 3 years and externalizing behavior problems at ages 8, 11, and 17 years. Am J Psychiatry 2004; 161:2005-2013
2. Galler JR, Barrett LR: Children and famine: long-term effects on behavioral development. Ambulatory Child Health 2002; 7:85-95
3. Galler JR, Ramsey F, Solimano G, Lowell WE: The influence of early malnutrition on subsequent behavioral development, II: classroom behavior. J Am Acad Child Psychiatry 1983; 22:16-22
4. Galler JR, Ramsey F: A follow-up study of the influence of early malnutrition on development: behavior at home and at school. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 1989; 28:254-261
5. Galler JR, Ramsey F, Morley DS, Archer E, Salt P: The long-term effects of early kwashiorkor compared with marasmus, IV: performance on the national high school entrance examination. Pediatr Res 1990; 28:235-239
6. Dobbing J: Vulnerable periods of brain development, in Lipids, Malnutrition and the Developing Brain. Ciba Found Symposium 1971; 9-29
7. Raine A, Reynolds C, Venables PH, Mednick SA, Farrington DP: Fearlessness, stimulation-seeking, and large body size at age 3 years as early predispositions to childhood aggression at age 11 years. Arch Gen Psychiatry 1998; 55:745-751


See also the Reply to Galler et al by Liu and colleagues in the same issue of this Journal