The effects of heavy burdens of diarrhea in the first 2 years of life on specific executive control function like verbal fluency are not well understood. In previous studies, we have shown associations of early childhood diarrhea (ECD) with nonverbal intelligence and school functioning. Therefore, we postulated that ECD might affect early neuropsychological development leading to long-term deficits in normal cognitive development. Based on our extensive 14-year prospective cohort studies of early childhood diarrheal illnesses in a Brazilian shantytown community, we examined ECD correlations between specific impairments of higher mental function and executive skills in shantytown children 5-10 years later (now at 6-12) years of age. Specifically we examined whether heavy diarrheal illnesses correlate with reduced performance on selected tests of executive function. Our study, for the first time, suggests a disproportional impairment in semantic but not phonetic fluency in a subset of children with heavy burdens of diarrhea in their first 2 years of life even when controlling for maternal education, breastfeeding, and child schooling. Similar semantic decrements have been associated with impaired recovery from brain injury. These exploratory studies suggest the importance of verbal fluency tests to assess executive functioning in children challenged by poor nutrition and diarrhea in early life. In addition, our unique findings show the potential influences of early childhood diarrhea on language development that is so critical to productive adulthood and potentially set a foundation for new neuropsychological approaches, which assess early burdens of enteric illnesses on childhood development.
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