Can nutrition prevent brain disorders in children?

February 28, 2012

Children and Teens, Food, Health

The nutritional status of the mother-to-be is of paramount importance to proper brain growth and development of the child in utero.

by Jan Katzen-Luchenta — 

Some of the children walked up to the stage; others limped or ambled proudly, using walkers or braces. Several, confined to wheelchairs, rolled their way through the crowded rehearsal hall and up the ramp to take their places center stage.

As the syncopation of “Stomp” filled the space, inspired but uncoordinated children banged their sticks, moving their arms and legs a beat behind the music, all the while laughing and chatting with heavy tongues and slurred speech.

An autistic child sat apart from the rest, wearing a helmet and a protective vest, seemingly unable to cope with the enormity of the sights, sounds and physical closeness. His personal teacher sat beside him. Several of the special education assistants moved their bodies to the music and initially appeared upbeat and jubilant, but a closer look revealed desperate resignation. For many of these children with neural tube defects, Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and mental retardation, it would be a long haul to self-sufficiency. For others, dependency on a private caregiver would be a lifelong reality.

Pioneering scientific research on nutrition points to the sobering truth: the incidence of children with brain disorders is escalating, disproportionate to the success of improved awareness and diagnostic tools. Increasing evidence of nutrient deficiency during key developmental stages strongly suggests a correlation between inadequate diets and neurodevelopmental difficulties.

Professor Michael Crawford, director of the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition and a world-renowned nutritional scientist, has presented research showing that the nutritional status of the mother-to-be is of paramount importance to proper brain growth and development of the child in utero. Nutritional scientists continue to publish data that suggest nutritional disorders cripple early cell division, sometimes leaving the brains of our children irreparably affected.

Many of the devastating insults on the brain during development occur in the first three weeks of gestation, when the neural tube is about the size and shape of this “C.” Health professionals and government agencies stress the importance of the nutrient folate, or folic acid, prior to conception and throughout pregnancy. But for folate to work, it must rely on both vitamin B-12 for neural protein synthesis (to build new cells) and on zinc, which is the transcriber of the genetic code (DNA) and nature’s premier antioxidant.

Deficiencies of folate or its accessory nutrients retard DNA growth, which impacts the formation of the neural tube. Failure of fusion can lead to cleft palate, cerebral palsy, or malformation of the spine, commonly called spina bifida. Where this tiny “C” fuses together is the stem of the primitive brain.

Anencephaly, which occurs once in one thousand births, is a neural tube defect that halts brain growth. Twenty-five percent of these babies are stillborn; the remainder live long enough to wear tiny knitted caps to cover their gaping craniums, as they await imminent death.

The grey area between profound deformity, mental retardation, autism, Down syndrome, dyslexia and ADHD is difficult to pinpoint but is increasingly defined by a highly sophisticated MRI that determines the location and timing of injury to the brain.

Dr. Patricia M. Rodier, of the University of Rochester School of Medicine, has identified an environmentally induced, embryological origin for autism at the time of closure of the neural tube where the cranial nerve motor nuclei is forming — laying down lines of communication between the left and right hemispheres of the future brain. Imperfect connections between regions means reduced signaling between the “feeling” right side and “thinking” left side of the brain.

This then would reduce a person’s own awareness of their feelings, as in autism. This also accounts for the impulsiveness, compulsiveness and diminished social skills that traditionally accompany autism. Other skills can become hyper-developed, such as in the many cases of musical, mathematical and artistic savants.

A cell adhesion molecule from the developing embryo and evidence of a relationship between families of children with neural tube defects has been identified in Down syndrome. This common thread in evidence leads us to a new scientific paradigm: nutrigenomics — the study of nutrients and their “system fingerprints” in gene expression. Though genetics provides the template for central nervous system and brain design, nutrients play a tremendous role in the enzymatic activity responsible for healthy cell proliferation.

Johan Hultdin has identified a “folate trap” created by a nutritional disorder involving vitamin B-6 and B-12 in Down syndrome. Enzymatic activity for vitamin B-6 is located on chromosome 21, where extra duplication (trisomy) is its hallmark.

The small intestines develop shortly after the neural tube. Poor cellular formation of the lining can result in malabsorption of vital nutrients needed for fetal brain growth and connectivity. Impaired absorption of vitamin B-12 could interfere with nerve mylenization and result in impaired nervous system development. Much of the data related to innate gut immune abnormalities and food intolerances in children with neurodevelopmental difficulties point us in the direction of a strong brain-gut interrelation.

Evidence of the power and impact of nutritional deficiency on neurological development in utero has been amassed in thousands of articles in scientific literature. The fetal brain grows at a prodigious rate of 250,000 neurons per minute, depending on energy from the maternal thyroid, which is fueled by iodine. Endemic cretinism, severe mental retardation associated with deaf-mutism, is astonishingly preventable with maternal dietary iodine prior to conception.

Maternal deficiencies of vital nutrients are conclusive in the cord blood of premature and low birth weight babies. These little ones are at high risk for permanent neurological impairment at a time when perinatal fatty acids, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), fosters rapid brain growth and refines neural circuitry and signaling.

The recent in-vitro fertilized embryos that became the now-famous California octuplets (whose median birth weight was two pounds each), replays this risk as a sequel to the 1998 Houston octuplets that sadly involved one death and the development of cerebral palsy in two of the children.

Lessons learned? In today’s fast food-a-rama, nutrients are pummeled and synthesized beyond the cells’ recognition, resulting in fake nourishment for real-life developing brains. Restoring nutritional potency to our diets by eating seeds, nuts, whole grains (germ and bran intact) legumes, fruits, vegetables and protein from grass-fed animals and wild fish is paramount during preconception and gestation to provide the best opportunities for a successful pregnancy.

Would the lives of these developmentally disabled performers in their production of “Stomp” have been any different if their mothers’ preconceptional diets had contained more whole food nutrition? No one knows for sure. But those dedicated people all over the world who have made the study of nutrition their livelihoods are living up to the universal challenge proposed by Albert Einstein: “The important thing is not to stop questioning.”


Jan Katzen-Luchenta, AMI, CFP, is a whole food nutritional therapist, a Foresight Preconceptional practitioner and counselor, nutritional researcher and scientific writer, and author of Nutrition for Learning; Feeding the Starving Brain. 602-370-4036,, or

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 28, Number 5, Oct/Nov 2009.

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