How weight gain early in life affects brain development


A new study examines how weight gain in utero and during infancy can impact brain volume in childhood.

Brain development in utero and during the first months of life can significantly impact a child’s outcomes in life. With research indicating that low birth weight can have a negative effect on neurodevelopmentaloutcomes. An investigation examined how fetal and infant weight growth during the first 2 years of life were linked to cerebral and cerebellar gray and white matter volumes at age 10 years.1

Investigators ran a population-based, prospective cohort study from February 1, 2021 to April 16, 2021. It was part of the Generation R Study in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Ultrasonography was used estimate fetal weight for both the second and third trimester of pregnancy. Infants were weighed at birth, 6 months, 12 months, and 24 months. At 10 years, children had their head circumference measured and imaged. For the purpose of the study, weight acceleration or deceleration was defined as a change in scores greater than 0.67 between time points.

The cohort included 3098 children with an average age of 10.1 years at the final follow up. Investigators found that 1 standard deviation-higher weight gain until the second and third trimesters, birth, and 6, 12, and 24 months was tied to larger total brain volume, independent of growth during any other age window (second trimester: 5.7 cm3; 95% CI, 1.2-10.2 cm3; third trimester: 15.3 cm3; 95% CI, 11.0-19.6 cm3; birth: 20.8 cm3; 95% CI, 16.4-25.1 cm3; 6 months: 15.6 cm3; 95% CI, 11.2-19.9 cm3; 12 months: 11.3 cm3; 95% CI, 7.0-15.6 cm3; and 24 months: 11.1 cm3; 95% CI, 6.8-15.4 cm3). When compared to children who had a history of normal growth, those with fetal and infant growth deceleration were found to have the smallest total brain volume (–32.5 cm3; 95% CI, –53.2 to –11.9 cm3). Children who had fetal weight deceleration, but also had catch-up growth during infancy were found to have a brain volume that was similar to those with a normal growth pattern. Larger brain volumes were tied to higher peak weight velocity and body mass index.

The investigators concluded that weight growth both in utero and during infancy appear to be very important to cerebral and cerebellar brain volumes in childhood. They urged further research into how these links may affect neurocognitive outcomes.


1. Silva C, El Marroun H, Sammallahti S, et al. Patterns of fetal and infant growth and brain morphology at age 10 years. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(12):e2138214. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.38214

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