School of Medicine

Gut Microbes Might Keep Malnourished Children From Growing

Long-term malnutrition might at first seem like a medical condition with an easy fix: access to a wholesome diet rich in calories and nutrients.

But many of the children on the receiving end of such interventions still struggle to grow. Even when given enough to eat, they end up shorter than their peers and are saddled with cognitive deficits, weakened immune systems and other long-term consequences that tax their brains and bodies alike. The result is a paradox that continues to vex researchers worldwide.

Some 150 million children under the age of 5 have stunted growth. “It’s perhaps the single most common nutritional problem that we see all over the world, and there is no single intervention that has worked,” said Tahmeed Ahmed, senior director of the nutrition and clinical services division of the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research, Bangladesh.

With so many children imperiled by poor sanitation and food insecurity, it is unlikely that researchers will ever uncover a simple root cause for stunting, Dr. Ahmed said. But in a paper published Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine, a team led by Dr. Ahmed and Jeff Gordon, a microbiologist at Washington University in St. Louis, may have taken a crucial step toward understanding one driver behind the debilitating condition: the bacteria that reside within the small intestine, where most nutrients are absorbed.

Certain members of this microbial community, the researchers found, may cause a cascade of inflammation in the gut that makes it harder for children to get the most out of their meals. Treatments that target these microbes for elimination — or perhaps foster friendlier strains — might someday help physicians rebuild the health of malnourished children.

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