Stunting in infancy is associated with atypical activation of working memory and attention networks

Sobanawartiny Wijeakumar, Samuel H. Forbes, Vincent A. Magnotta, Sean Deoni, Kiara Jackson, Vinay P. Singh, Madhuri Tiwari, Aarti Kumar, John P. Spencer

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Stunting is associated with poor long-term cognitive, academic and economic outcomes, yet the mechanisms through which stunting impacts cognition in early development remain unknown. In a first-ever neuroimaging study conducted on infants from rural India, we demonstrate that stunting impacts a critical, early-developing cognitive system—visual working memory. Stunted infants showed poor visual working memory performance and were easily distractible. Poor performance was associated with reduced engagement of the left anterior intraparietal sulcus, a region involved in visual working memory maintenance and greater suppression in the right temporoparietal junction, a region involved in attentional shifting. When assessed one year later, stunted infants had lower problem-solving scores, while infants of normal height with greater left anterior intraparietal sulcus activation showed higher problem-solving scores. Finally, short-for-age infants with poor physical growth indices but good visual working memory performance showed more positive outcomes suggesting that intervention efforts should focus on improving working memory and reducing distractibility in infancy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2199–2211
Number of pages13
JournalNature Human Behaviour
Early online date26 Oct 2023
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2023

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