Infantile Iron Deficiency Affects Brain Development in Monkeys Even After Treatment of Anemia

Roza M. Vlasova, Qian Wang, Auriel Willette, Martin A. Styner, Gabriele R. Lubach, Pamela J. Kling, Michael K. Georgieff, Raghavendra B. Rao, Christopher L. Coe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


A high percent of oxidative energy metabolism is needed to support brain growth during infancy. Unhealthy diets and limited nutrition, as well as other environmental insults, can compromise these essential developmental processes. In particular, iron deficiency anemia (IDA) has been found to undermine both normal brain growth and neurobehavioral development. Even moderate ID may affect neural maturation because when iron is limited, it is prioritized first to red blood cells over the brain. A primate model was used to investigate the neural effects of a transient ID and if deficits would persist after iron treatment. The large size and postnatal growth of the monkey brain makes the findings relevant to the metabolic and iron needs of human infants, and initiating treatment upon diagnosis of anemia reflects clinical practice. Specifically, this analysis determined whether brain maturation would still be compromised at 1 year of age if an anemic infant was treated promptly once diagnosed. The hematology and iron status of 41 infant rhesus monkeys was screened at 2-month intervals. Fifteen became ID; 12 met clinical criteria for anemia and were administered iron dextran and B vitamins for 1–2 months. MRI scans were acquired at 1 year. The volumetric and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) measures from the ID infants were compared with monkeys who remained continuously iron sufficient (IS). A prior history of ID was associated with smaller total brain volumes, driven primarily by significantly less total gray matter (GM) and smaller GM volumes in several cortical regions. At the macrostructual level, the effect on white matter volumes (WM) was not as overt. However, DTI analyses of WM microstructure indicated two later-maturating anterior tracts were negatively affected. The findings reaffirm the importance of iron for normal brain development. Given that brain differences were still evident even after iron treatment and following recovery of iron-dependent hematological indices, the results highlight the importance of early detection and preemptive supplementation to limit the neural consequences of ID.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number624107
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
StatePublished - Feb 24 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Copyright © 2021 Vlasova, Wang, Willette, Styner, Lubach, Kling, Georgieff, Rao and Coe.


  • anemia
  • brain development
  • diffusion tensor imaging
  • gray matter
  • infancy
  • monkey
  • neuroimaging


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