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How eating (and growing) could improve your IQ

30 November 2005

The connection between childhood growth and levels of intelligence is explored in a new study from the Children of the 90s project.

The connection between childhood growth and levels of intelligence is explored in a new study from the Children of the 90s project.

Scientists at the University of Bristol have shown that there appears to be a link between the growth hormone IGF-I and the child’s IQ. The findings could explain why some shorter children do worse at school.

The study is based on 547 children who completed an intelligence test at the age of 8. Professor David Gunnell and his colleagues measured levels of the Insulin Growth Factor IGF-I in their blood.

Circulating levels of insulin-like growth factors are influenced by a variety of factors, including our diet, and control the effects of growth hormone on tissues and play a key role in physical growth and organ development in childhood.

Professor Gunnell says it well known that babies of low birth weight are slower to develop.

“Poor fetal and post-natal growth are associated with impaired neurodevelopment. Low birthweight babies experience delays in reaching motor milestones and on average have slightly lower IQs than normal weight babies.”

“Similarly, short stature – a measure of poor post-natal growth and nutrition – is associated with low scores in tests of cognitive function and poor educational achievement.”

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to investigate the association of IGFs with measures of intellectual performance in population samples of normal children.”

So far, scientists don’t know what actually happens in the body to link poor growth and impaired neurodevelopment, although one explanation could be that growth hormones may also affect development of the brain.

When they compared IGF-I levels, researchers found a significant link with intelligence. For every 100 nanograms per millilitre increase (100ng/ml), IQ increased by 3 points. The effect seemed to be restricted to the verbal component of IQ and was not seen in other tests.

Professor Gunnell says:” This study provides some preliminary evidence that IGF-I plays an important role in human brain development and may underlie the associations of birth weight and height with IQ.

“Further support for this association comes from a recent study in which 74 low birthweight children were treated with Growth Hormone therapy and followed up for over 2 years. The therapy led not only to improved growth but also to improvement in IQ”

The association of IGF-I and IGFBP-3 with IQ in 8-9 year old children in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. David Gunnell , Laura L Miller , Imogen Rogers, Jeff MP Holly and the ALSPAC team. Pediatrics 2005; 116:681-686.


  • It is already known that IGF-I levels are affected by diet. Children who are poorly nourished have lower levels compared to children who consume more dairy produce and milk protein.
  • Previous studies have suggested that over many years, higher IGF-I levels are associated with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, but an increased risk of cancer.
  • ALSPAC The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (also known as Children of the 90s) is a unique ongoing research project based in the University of Bristol. It enrolled 14,000 mothers during pregnancy in 1991-2 and has followed most of the children and parents in minute detail ever since.


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