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Height differences are connected to cognitive ability, surprising study finds

Cognitive abilities, while varying considerably among different species, are also strikingly diverse within a single species. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

Groundbreaking research led by Professor John Spencer at the University of East Anglia, and Assistant Professor Samuel Forbes from the distinguished Psychology Department, has unveiled a crucial link—affecting infants as young as six months old—between the physical stature of an infant and their cognitive abilities, tied to brain function.

This collaboration, also involving the University of Nottingham, the Community Empowerment Lab, University of Iowa, Rhode Island Hospital, Brown University, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, represents a significant leap in our understanding of early childhood development.


This research pivots on the concept of 'visual working memory,' a critical component of our cognitive architecture that maintains and processes visual information.

Experimental task and behavioural results. A trial of length 10 s of the preferential-looking VWM task. During the 10 s trial, alternating blank displays for 250 ms are followed by ‘on’ displays of coloured squares for 500 ms (250, 500, 250 and 500 ms… for 10 s). (CREDIT: Nature Human Behavior)

The study meticulously compared this cognitive capacity in infants experiencing stunted growth—a marker of undernutrition and adverse environmental conditions—with their peers demonstrating expected growth patterns.


The Intricate Web of Growth and Cognition

The study’s startling revelations show that infants with stunted growth exhibit disrupted visual working memory, making them more prone to distractions. This sets a concerning precedent for their cognitive abilities, projecting a dimmer trajectory for their development a year down the line.

Until now, stunted growth has been associated with poor cognitive outcomes in later life stages, but the fact that its shadow looms over the infancy stage—and is linked to how the brain functionally operates during early development—is a revelation.


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Stunting, also known scientifically as linear growth faltering, is a multifaceted issue that often begins even before birth and continues through the critical first 1,000 days of a child's life.

It stems from an interplay of factors, including insufficient nutrition, maternal health challenges, the scourge of infectious diseases, unclean environments, and the dire lack of caregiver interaction and environmental stimulation.


Affecting approximately 150 million children under five globally, stunting is a silent epidemic with far-reaching consequences.

In less developed regions, the tendrils of stunting reach deep, intertwined with delayed school enrolment and lower educational achievements.

The repercussions echo into adulthood, eroding potential income by a staggering 20%, chipping away at economic productivity by 1.4%, and imposing an economic burden of $176.8 million per birth cohort. At the root, stunting propagates a relentless cycle of poverty and malnutrition, casting a long shadow across generations.


A Glimmer of Hope Amidst Challenge

Amidst this sobering landscape, the study heralds a beacon of optimism. It implies that strategic interventions aimed at enhancing working memory and curtailing distractibility in these critical early months could offset, or even prevent, the cognitive deficits that might otherwise unfold over the course of a lifetime.

Brain image shows effect in rIFG (red cluster in brain inset). Right panel shows mean ± s.e. HbO (solid, circles) and HbR (dashed, triangles) concentrations across the haemodynamic time window (0–20 s) for infants with CP scores less than chance (≤0.5) and CP scores greater than chance. n = 221 6- and 9-month-old infants. (CREDIT: Nature Human Behavior)

Through the lens of this research, we begin to understand that the battle for cognitive well-being is fought not only in the classrooms of adolescence or the libraries of universities but also in the cradles of our youngest, where the first threads of life’s tapestry are woven.


From Findings to Action: The Next Steps

The work of Professor Spencer, Assistant Professor Forbes, and their colleagues is far from over. The insights gleaned from their research are merely the first step in a long journey toward addressing the challenges of stunting and its cognitive ramifications. The call to action is clear: as a global community, we must champion the cause of early childhood development with a vigor renewed, armed with the knowledge that the well-being of our youngest citizens is intrinsically linked to the future prosperity of our societies.

Brain image shows location of main effect of chromophore (blue), interaction between age and chromophore (green) and overlap (white) in laIPS. (CREDIT: Nature Human Behavior)

As we advance, the pathways to mitigating the impact of stunting must be multifaceted. Initiatives must target improving nutrition, enhancing maternal and infant health care, reducing exposure to disease, elevating hygiene standards, and, crucially, ensuring that children receive the necessary stimulation and attention from caregivers that is so pivotal to early brain development.


Mobilizing a Global Response

This is not a challenge for individual families or communities alone; it is a clarion call for a unified global response. Policy makers, educators, health professionals, and international organizations must converge in their efforts to dismantle the barriers to growth and cognitive development that afflict so many of the world's children.

Brain image shows location of interaction between HAZ, load and chromophore (lavender), interaction between age and chromophore and overlap (white) in a superior cluster in laIPS. (CREDIT: Nature Human Behavior)

It is within our collective grasp to weave a new narrative for the future—one in which every child is afforded the opportunity to reach their full cognitive potential, unimpeded by the preventable curse of stunting.


Through concerted, compassionate, and science-informed actions, we can uphold the right of each child to thrive, setting the stage not just for individual success, but for the sustained health and economic vitality of societies around the globe.

For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


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