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Scientists Investigate Childhood Nutrition Mystery's Causes, EffectsBy Jim Core
December 8, 2003
Scientists funded by the Agricultural Research Service are investigating how nutrition may affect children who develop normally in most ways but grow slowly in the first three years of life. Pediatricians describe this condition as "failure to thrive" (FTT).
Children with FTT fall behind their peers not only physically but also in learning the basic school skills of reading, spelling and arithmetic. Unlike children who simply don't grow as tall as their peers, FTT children apparently fail to make use of adequate nutrition to grow and gain weight as expected.
ARS, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency, is funding research at the Arkansas Children's Nutrition Center (ACNC), which is managed in cooperation with ARS and the Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock, Ark.
Roscoe A. Dykman and Terry Pivik, psychophysiologists at the center's Brain Functions Laboratory, are interested in how children diagnosed with FTT utilize what they eat, and how this impacts their brains and behavior.
It's not known whether FTT is a disorder that blocks or interferes with nutrient absorption or if it is caused by lower-than-normal food intake. Either way, it results in central nervous system dysfunctions.
The ACNC researchers recruited parents of infants and toddlers 6-20 months of age for a study of growth-retarded and normally developing children. According to Dykman, nutrients may not be processed the same by FTT and normal children. Even though growth-retarded children apparently consumed more food than the control group did, they were smaller and scored lower on developmental tests. Blood chemistry analyses suggest their metabolism is different.
Evidence from a second study in preadolescents with early diagnoses of FTT suggests nutritional problems earlier in life may have subtle effects on the brain's frontal lobe.
ACNC researchers are working to develop new diets that promote brain development and function in babies born before full term.
Read more about this research in the December 2003 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.