Undernutrition is a particularly devastating, yet preventable problem not limited to developing countries. In the United States, approximately 14% of households were deemed ‘food insecure’ by the USDA in 2014. That is, over 17 million households in the U.S. were uncertain of having food, or unable to acquire food.
Hunger in infants and children has long-term intellectual, cognitive, social, and affective ramifications.
Undernutrition in infants and children predicts lower socioeconomic status, depression, suicidal thoughts, and more externalizing behaviors compared with well-nourished infants and children. Human studies, however, cannot pinpoint biological changes that occur as a consequence of early-life undernutrition due to other confounding early-life stressors. Thus, rodent models are necessary to determine neural mechanisms and design interventions.
Many rodent studies have neglected to investigate how early life undernutrition affects females.
We are investigating how early postnatal undernutrition alters anxiety- and depression-like behavior and conditioned fear in both males and females. The hippocampus is vulnerable to early-life events and might underlie many of the cognitive and affective consequences of early-life undernutrition. Our preliminary work suggests that early postnatal undernutrition reduces anxiety-like behavior in adolescents, which might represent a greater likelihood of risk-taking behaviors. Early postnatal undernutrition also increased hippocampal neurogenesis in adolescents, suggesting that early undernutrition delays the brain growth spurt.