Iron Deficiency and Neurodevelopment

Apr 4 2019

Nielsen JB (2018). Effect of Iron Deficiency in Offspring Rats: An Investigation of Fear and Anxiety-like Behavior Related to the Developing Hippocampus. Master’s Thesis, Aalborg University, Aalborg, Denmark.


Iron deficiency is a widespread health issue, affecting about 2 billion people worldwide. Particularly during pregnancy, iron demand increases sharply, thus increasing susceptibility to acquiring a deficiency. A major focus of study is understanding the critical periods for iron supplementation during development to prevent long-term deficits. A recent study out of Aalborg University, explores how supplementing iron deficiency at different stages affects neurodevelopment.


In this study, female Wistar rats received either a control diet or an iron-deficient diet for 8-weeks before being mated. Iron supplementation was administered at different developmental stages: gestational day 19 or postnatal day 5. Then the offspring were tested for fear and anxiety-like behavior using 10-minute exposures to the open field, elevated zero maze, and light-dark box.

Open field setup using behaviorcloud


In offspring tested after 28 days of age, those subjected to iron deficiency were less active in the open field and spent less time in the center zone compared to control offspring. This effect was partially ameliorated by iron supplementation during gestation, but not by supplementation at postnatal day 5 where the results were more variable. In the elevated zero maze and light-dark box, the results trended in the same direction, with offspring that were supplemented during gestation being more exploratory compared to un-supplemented iron deficient offspring.

open field results


As iron deficiency is a common concern during pregnancy and can have negative outcomes for the offspring, it is important to determine the most critical developmental periods for supplementing. This study clearly demonstrates that iron deficiency during gestation can have profound consequences for neurodevelopment, leading to lasting behavioral changes in the offspring. It suggests that iron supplementation during gestation is more beneficial than supplementation later on after birth. We look forward to seeing future studies further narrow the critical window for iron supplementation and elucidate the molecular underpinnings of these results. Great study!

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