The University Record, November 5, 2001

Early iron-deficiency is project focus

By Colleen Newvine
News and Information Services

The rat above is being tested for its ability to learn the correct sequence of path choice in a T-maze in order to receive a treat. Numbers of trials and days to a criterion for performance are measured. (Photo by Bill Wood, U-M Photo Services)
Medical experts have long understood that iron deficiency can cause anemia, but effects on the brain and behavior are more recent worries.

Six universities are collaborating on a new $6.9 million multi-project program of research on the brain and behavior in early iron deficiency, headed by Betsy Lozoff, director of the U-M Center for Human Growth and Development. Funding comes from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (www.nichd.nih.gov/). Other institutions participating are Pennsylvania State University, University of Wisconsin, University of Minnesota, University of California-Davis, and Wayne State University.

Iron-deficiency anemia affects about one-quarter of infants worldwide and many poor and minority children in the United States. During development, iron is needed in the brain for many purposes. For instance, iron is required to build myelin, which covers nerves and helps them share signals more efficiently. Iron is needed for brain chemicals, such as the neurotransmitter dopamine, which sends signals within the brain. Recently, iron deficiency has been shown to affect the hippocampus, which plays an important role in certain kinds of memory.

Lozoff, who has worked on issues of iron deficiency and infant development for the last 25 years, noted that infants with iron-deficiency anemia test lower in mental and motor development and show behavioral changes, compared to babies with good iron status. Giving iron treatment to iron-deficient infants does not necessarily solve their development problems. They still do worse, on average, in arithmetic, writing and other behavioral areas later in life, Lozoff said. But whether brain changes account for these findings has been hard to study until now.

The new study will use innovative noninvasive techniques to study the developing central nervous system in early iron deficiency. As an example, researchers will measure brain waves as babies perform mental tasks. Cross-species comparisons with humans, primates and rodents will examine behaviors that should be sensitive to disruptions in different brain functions that have been shown to be altered by iron deficiency.

Project participants hope to understand the ties between the brain and behavior and the effects of iron deficiency, as that knowledge would help create interventions more effective in treating the effects of iron deficiency. The new study will look carefully at the timing of iron deficiency and iron treatment to determine whether there are particular times in development when treatment leads to a better outcome.

Young babies worldwide typically receive iron from mother’s milk, but rapid growth means that more iron is needed from the diet after the first six months. The problem is that other foods usually given to infants—soft cereals, cow’s milk and fruits—are poor sources of iron. In the United States, fortifying baby formula and cereals with iron has helped a great deal, but these have not been adopted internationally, Lozoff noted, and might interfere with breastfeeding.

To learn more about this program or the Center for Human Growth and Development, visit the Web at www.umich.edu/~chgdwww/.

For more information about Lozoff’s work on iron deficiency go to www.med.umich.edu/opm/newspage/pasaap.htm, or www.med.umich.edu/magazine/pdf/issue6/v6lozoff.pdf (Acrobat required).