a1 Developmental Genetics Programme and Neurobiology Programme, The Babraham Institute, Cambridge CB2 4AT, UK
Nutrition plays a central role in linking the fields of developmental neurobiology and cognitive neuroscience. It has a profound impact on the development of brain structure and function and malnutrition can result in developmental dysfunction and disease in later life. A number of diseases, including schizophrenia, may be related to neurodevelopmental insults such as malnutrition, hypoxia, viruses or in utero drug exposure. Some of the most significant findings on nutrition and neurodevelopment during the last three decades, and especially during the last few years, are discussed in this review. Attention is focused on the underlying cellular and molecular mechanisms by which diet exerts its effects. Randomized intervention studies have revealed important effects of early nutrition on later cognitive development, and recent epidemiological findings show that both genetics and environment are risk factors for schizophrenia. Particularly important is the effect of early nutrition on development of the hippocampus, a brain structure important in establishing learning and memory, and hence for cognitive performance. A major aim of future research should be to elucidate the molecular mechanisms underlying nutritionally-induced impairment of neurodevelopment and specifically to determine the mechanisms by which early nutritional experience affects later cognitive performance. Key research objectives should include: (1) increased understanding of mechanisms underlying the normal processes of ageing and neurodegenerative disorders; (2) assessment of the role of susceptibility genes in modulating the effects of early nutrition on neurodevelopment; and (3) development of nutritional and pharmaceutical strategies for preventing and/or ameliorating the adverse effects of early malnutrition on long-term programming.