Vitamin C deficiency in the first weeks and months of life may impair the development of neurons in the brain and decrease spatial memory, according to a new animal study.
Danish researchers took 30 new born guinea pigs and randomly assigned them to one of two groups: One group was fed a vitamin C-sufficient diet, while the other group was fed the same diet but low in vitamin C (1). Levels of the vitamin produced deficiency but were not extreme enough to cause scurvy.
After two months, the animals were tested in a water maze, and neuron numbers in the hippocampus (a major component of the brain, which plays important roles in long-term memory and spatial navigation) were measured. The researchers found that the vitamin C deficient animals had a lower number of neurons in the hippocampus, and also performed worse in the maze tests.
Commenting on the possible reasons for the effects, the researchers noted that the highest concentration of vitamin C is found in the neurons of the brain. Even at times of low vitamin C intake, the remaining vitamin is retained in the brain to secure this organ.
Studies with specially engineered mice showed that mouse fetuses that were not able to transport vitamin C developed severe brain damage, resembling damage found in premature babies, which is linked to learning and cognitive disabilities later in life.
The scientists speculated that the lack of vitamin C supplementation in high-risk individuals, such as pregnant women and newborns with poor vitamin C status, could be detrimental to normal brain development and lead to neurologic disabilities later in life. Although a direct extrapolation of this new phenomenon to humans is not currently possible, they found that the relatively high prevalence of vitamin C deficiency in humans, including infants and toddlers, warrants future clinical studies to clarify whether a similar link to brain development exists in humans.
Despite its popularity, vitamin C deficiency is reportedly very common.