Adverse, irreparable developmental impacts of iron-deficiency studied in piglet brains

By Mohamad Hamze

Piglet brains have been studied extensively for their similarities to human infant brains in terms of development timeline and nutrient requirements; with this in mind, the research of Austin Mudd and Ryan Dilger at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has corroborated the documented neurological and psychological effects of iron deficiency with neuroimaging of piglet brains as they developed in early life with and without sufficient iron. Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies worldwide, and carries a number of adverse health effects in individuals of all ages. It was their hope that this information may point towards research of the structural neurological deficits in humans whose effects can last well into adulthood.

MRI analysis of piglets with iron-deficient diets in the first four weeks of life indicated that insufficient iron resulted in reduced overall brain volume and decreased iron content in crucial areas of the brain such as the hippocampus when compared to those piglets who received sufficient dietary iron. All piglets were then supplied iron-rich diets for the next four weeks in order to study the ability of the brain to recover from the early effects of iron-deficiency. While brain volume increased to near-normal levels, many of the earlier-affected brain areas were still found to be iron-deficient or structurally impaired even after four weeks of a normal diet. What this implies for piglets – and with further research, the researchers hope, human infants – is a “critical window in development for providing iron” found right after birth. This window, which in humans translates to about four months post-birth, thus proves crucial for early brain development and motor skills, cognition, memory and emotion later in life.


University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Neuroimaging reveals lasting brain deficits in iron-deficient piglets." ScienceDaily, 21 February 2018.