Vol. 5, No. 4, 1999 Page 4&6

Malnutrition before birth linked to antisocial behavior

Severe malnutrition during the first two trimesters of prenatal development may increase the risk of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) in adulthood, according to a new study.

Richard Neugebauer and colleagues examined the records of more than 100,000 Dutch men whose mothers were pregnant in 1944 and 1945 during a period known as the “Dutch Hunger Winter,” in which the German army blockaded food supplies to the Netherlands. Wes stern Holland experienced severe food restriction (an average of less than 1000 calories per day per person), while other areas experienced moderate food restrictions (1000 to 1500 calories per day).

Neugebauer et al. divided their subjects according to whether they experienced severe or moderate malnutrition in utero, and according to which trimesters of prenatal development were affected. The study also included individuals who, because of th he timing of their mothers’ pregnancies, were not subjected prenatally to food restriction.

The researchers then studied the military records of these men when they reached the age of 18 and underwent psychological testing during military induction. They report that “the odds of antisocial personality disorder were elevated among men with severe e but not with moderate prenatal nutritional deficiency.” Severe malnutrition during the first and second trimesters of prenatal development, but not the third trimester, was linked to ASPD-and, in particular, to violent ASPD. These findings remained sig g gnificant after the researchers controlled for factors including IQ, number of siblings, body mass index, and detectable physical illness.

The researchers note that their study involved a population subjected to nutritional restrictions imposed by an outside force, reducing the possibility that confounding factors such as socioeconomic status and maternal health habits played a role in the d development of ASPD.

“Our data suggest that severe nutritional insults to the developing brain in utero may be capable of increasing the risk for antisocial behaviors in offspring,” the researchers say. “The possible implications of these findings for both developed co ountries and developing countries, where severe nutritional deficiency is widespread and often exacerbated by war, natural disaster, and forced migration, warrant study.”


“Prenatal exposure to wartime famine and development of antisocial personality disorder in early adulthood,” Richard Neugebauer, Hans Wijbrand Hoek, and Ezra Susser, Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 282, No. 5, August 4, 199 99, pp. 455-462. Address: Richard Neugebauer, Epidemiology of Developmental Brain Disorders Department, Box 53, New York State Psychiatric Institute, 722 W. 168th St., New York, NY 10032.

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