As Millions of Children Miss Developmental Targets, WHO Appeals for ‘Brain Health Optimisation’
Young children’s brains have great elasticity – but are also affected by a range of tings from pollution to stress.

Some 43% of children under five in low- and middle-income countries – nearly 250 million children – were at risk of not reaching their developmental potential in 2017 due to extreme poverty and stunting.

This is according to a new World Health Organization (WHO) position paper on brain health launched on Tuesday, which presents a framework for both understanding and optimising brain health. 

Brain health is defined as “the state of brain functioning across cognitive, sensory, social-emotional, behavioural and motor domains, allowing a person to realise their full potential over their life course, irrespective of the presence or absence of disorders”. 

“A multitude of factors can affect our brain health from as early as pre-conception,” according to Dr Ren Minghui, WHO Assistant Director-General for Universal Health Coverage/ Communicable and Noncommunicable Diseases

“These factors can pose great threats to the brain, leading to immense missed developmental potential, global disease burden and disability,” says Ren, writing in the foreword of the paper.

“Yet, these factors also represent great opportunities for action. Optimising brain health across the life course means addressing five major groups of determinants, namely: physical health; healthy environments; safety and security; life-long learning and social connection; as well as access to quality services.” 


In early childhood, the brain has its highest plasticity and thus the extraordinary potential for intervention.

“It is estimated that a child’s brain creates over one million new neuronal connections each second in the first few years of life,” according to the paper. 

“Nurturing care positively influences structural brain development in early life and allows children to thrive and reach their potential, while disruptions to or the absence of nurturing care can lead to changes in brain development that have long-term negative impacts.”

Even before a child is born, the odds are stacked against children whose mothers have poor nutrition, are stressed, and experience “toxic exposures during pregnancy”, including from air pollution, pesticides and substance use.

Children who miss their developmental milestones are projected to have around 26% lower annual earnings in adulthood.

Only 15 countries have family-friendly policy protections in place to safeguard child brain development: tuition-free pre-primary school education, legislation that supports breastfeeding, and paid maternity and paternity leave. 

The WHO estimates that 99% of all people worldwide breathe polluted air in their ambient environment, posing grave threats to brain development in early life and brain health across the life course

The paper is aimed at “raising awareness of the pressing need to establish brain health as a global priority”, concludes Ren. 


Image Credits: The Lancet.

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