Based on what is now known about the magnitude of brain development in the first 1,000 days, it is not surprising that the roots of some of the human’s most complex behaviors are laid down very early in life; well before there is an obvious behavioral expression of those areas.
Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of developmental nutritional neuroscience is the finding that early life deviation from expected trajectory due to a nutrient deficiency can affect brain function in adulthood, long after repletion of the nutrient. While the young brain is enormously plastic in its ability to recover from early insults and, hopefully, it is never too late to at least partially correct a deficit, the window of opportunity does narrow with advancing age. Feeding the fetal, newborn, and young child brain is one of the best ways we can achieve this goal.
Last week while I was teaching the doctors about adolescent nutrition, Ruchita a bright and inquisitive student among them asked me, “If adolescence is the period of growth spurts then when do we have the maximum brain and mental development?”
“A very pertinent question”, I replied and continued, “that the first 1000 days are the window of development for the brain. Can anyone of you tell me what do we mean by the first 1000 days? I asked further”.
I was met with pin drop silence in a room of 15 noisy student doctors. I realized that I need to describe this concept before I plunge further into adolescent nutrition. So I started by telling them that, “the first 1000 days of life refer to the period starting from the time of conception upto 2 years of age and is considered as one of the most important phases for brain development.
Pallavi, a smart doctor asked with a shock, “So we develop all our brain in the first 2 years only?”
Laughing, I said, “No, the brain continues to change all through life. Different parts of brain develop at different rates at different ages, but the growth of the brain is astounding in the initial 2 years after birth and it is almost 80% of the adult size brain by the end of 2 yr. There are times when 250,000 neurons are added during brain development and at birth the person will have almost all the neurons that he is ever going to have!
Ruchita, now all the more curious asked, “So what happens to the brain before birth?”
I did not want to get into minute details of brain development and so I resorted to answering this question with the basics by telling them that, “The development of the brain is one of the first changes to happen in a fetus and continues into adulthood. This phase thus provides the ideal window for the brain to be exposed to the right environment and adequate nutritional support to achieve its optimal growth. The Neural plate and Neural tube are formed by the 21st day after conception (before a mother realises that she is pregnant) and by the end of 7th week of conception(almost 2 months into the pregnancy), the brain divides into its 3 major parts. At 5 months post-conception the fetal brain looks like a coffee bean which develops its complexity of a n adult brain and resembles a walnut at birth(like an adult)”.
Smiling, I said “No, the size of the brain at birth(360-380 gms) is almost 4 times smaller than an adult brain(1310-1450 gms though at 2 years 1040- 1120 gms) it is 3 times of the new born brain.”
Tanmayi, who was listening intently, asked “What can we do to ensure optimum growth of the brain?”
I was impressed with the way the discussion was going, and replying to the question I said, “it is a combination of adequate nutrition (neither excess nor deficient), good environmental exposures, prevention from exposure to toxins and infections and lat but not the least genetic constitution.”
Taking this logic a little further, Tanmayi said, “This means that we can improve the intellectual capacity of a person if good care is given in the first 1000 days!”
“Absolutely!” I replied. With the right nutrition and environmental factors based on the critical window of development, we can prevent long-term deficits in brain development and even improve the intelligence quotient of the world by over 10 points!”
I was happy that someone had asked this question, I said “As different parts of the brain grow at different speeds at different periods of time, the critical period of each part is different. A critical nutrient at one time period may have little or no effect in another epoch. While the brain requires all nutrients for growth, certain nutrients, including protein, polyunsaturated fatty acids, iron, zinc, copper iodine, choline, folate and vitamins A, B6, and B12 are particularly critical. Of these, iron, exemplifies the necessity of adequate nutrition at specific times of brain growth to ensure full developmental potential.”
So, to conclude, I said, “the first 1000 days are our best window of opportunity to caress the brain and develop it to its optimal. No child should be deprived of this opportunity”.