By Pat Bailey
For all the moms who obediently popped their prenatal vitamins during pregnancy while wondering if the supplements could actually benefit their babies, an international research group has the answer, and it’s a resounding “yes.”
In fact, in a recent study the researchers discovered children whose mothers took multi-micronutrient supplements during pregnancy were advanced in cognitive abilities by as much as one full year of schooling by age 9-12 years.
The study, conducted in Indonesia and published Jan. 16 in the journal Lancet Global Health, also indicated that other essential ingredients in the recipe for smarter kids include early-life nurturing, happy moms, and educated parents.
And it showed that that a child’s nurturing environment is more strongly correlated than biological factors to brain development and general intellectual ability, memory, executive function, academic achievement, fine motor dexterity, and socio-emotional health.
“Previous studies had hinted at the importance of social determinants, but it was the extent of our detailed cognitive assessments and the number of children tested —together with data from the pregnancy onward — that enabled us to clearly quantify the effects, and the results were surprising,” said the study’s lead author, Elizabeth Prado, a researcher in the UC Davis Program in International and Community Nutrition.
This suggests that current public health programs focused only on biological factors may not sufficiently enhance child cognition, and that programs addressing socio-environmental factors are essential to achieve thriving populations, the researchers reported.
Between 2012 and 2014, the researchers extensively tested almost 3,000 Indonesian school children, then 9 to 12 years old, whose mothers had participated in an earlier study of the effects of consuming either multiple micronutrient supplements or standard iron-folic acid supplements during pregnancy. Those multiple micronutrient supplements were similar to the pre-natal multivitamin supplements consumed by many women in Canada, the United States and other countries during pregnancy.
The study revealed impressive long-term benefits to children whose mothers took multiple micronutrient supplements, including better “procedural memory” equivalent to the typical increase achieved after an additional half-year of schooling.
Procedural memory is tied to learning new skills and processing various types of established skills. It’s important for a child’s academic performance and daily life, and is tied to activities such as driving; typing; reading; arithmetic; reading; speaking and understanding language; and learning sequences, rules, and categories.
Furthermore, children of anemic mothers receiving the multiple micronutrient supplements scored substantially higher in general intellectual ability than their counterparts whose moms received the other supplements. The difference in scores between these two groups was comparable to the increase associated with an additional full year of schooling.
Socio-environmental factors surprisingly important
The researchers also were impressed and surprised by the strength of the relationship between cognitive abilities and early life social and environmental conditions.
Biological factors such as maternal nutritional status during pregnancy, low infant birth weight, premature birth, poor infant physical growth and nutritional status at follow-up were not as strongly linked to cognitive ability as were the socio-environmental factors assessed during the study. Those factors included the home environment, maternal depression, parental education and socio-economic status.
Collaborators and funding
The study was funded by the Government of Canada through Grand Challenges Canada’s Saving Brains program.
It was conducted by an international group of researchers, led by the Summit Institute of Development of Indonesia. In addition to the institute and UC Davis, other collaborators were the Center for Research on Language and Culture at the University of Mataram in Indonesia, Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Georgetown University in Washington D.C.; the University of Lancaster in England; and Deakin University in Australia.
Pat Bailey writes about nutrition, agricultural and veterinary sciences for UC Davis Strategic Communications. Follow her on Twitter @UCDavis_Bailey.