Decades after ending in ‘disappointment,’ Guatemalan study of infant brains inspires Canadian follow up – The Globe and Mail

Human development is both biological and social.  Research on childhood nutrition no result after 8 years, positive after 25 years.

In the 1970s, researchers tried to boost the brain power of hundreds of poor children in Guatemala with a porridge-like drink called atole. They were disappointed to discover that, after taking the daily dose of protein, some for up to eight years, there was only a modest impact.

It was a very different story 25 years later, when one of those scientists, Reynaldo Martorell, and a new team tracked down many of the adults who had participated as children. [….]

That follow-up study is now a model for a new, federally-funded Canadian program called Saving Brains that will direct $10-million to researchers who want to assess the long-term impact of interventions in early childhood. The aim is to find effective ways to encourage healthy brain development, because smarter kids have a better chance of breaking the cycle of poverty. [….]

The initial study in Guatemala was done by the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama. The original hypothesis was that protein supplementation would improve mental development.  [….] Dr. Martorell suspected it might have had a long-term impact on their brains.  [….]

When he and his colleagues went back to Guatemala to find out, they discovered that the children who were under the age of 3 when they started drinking the atole every day had benefitted after all. They had stayed in school longer and, once they entered the work force, earned on average 46 per cent more in wages than the children who were older than 3 when they started consuming the warm gruel every day. This suggested there was a window during the first three years of life during which extra dietary protein can encourage healthy brain development, says Dr. Martorell.

Now at Emory University in Atlanta, Dr. Martorell has acted as adviser to the Saving Brains initiative and was in Ottawa recently to talk to the researchers who are applying for funding.

He described how to track down adults who took part in research programs as children. In Guatemala, the scientists hired the same local supervisors who had helped in the original study. They were able to obtain economic data from 60 per cent of the 2,392 children who had been enrolled in the initial study. They published their findings in 2008 in the medical journal Lancet.

Surfaced as “Decades after ending in ‘disappointment,’ Guatemalan study of infant brains inspires Canadian follow up” | Ann McIlroy | Dec. 30, 2011 | The Globe and Mail at

Academic publication at “Effect of a nutrition intervention during early childhood on economic productivity in Guatemalan adults” | John Hoddinott, John A Maluccio, Jere R Behrman, Rafael Flores, Dr Reynaldo Martorell, Lancet (2008) at

Decades after ending in ‘disappointment,’ Guatemalan study of infant brains inspires Canadian follow up - The Globe and Mail