The impact of malnutrition and post traumatic stress disorder on the performance of working memory in children

Elise de Neubourg & Chris de Neubourg


Malnutrition is accepted to have a negative impact on the school performance of children and adolescents. Malnutrition also has a negative impact on cognitive development and a potentially lasting effect on (some) cognitive functions. This paper focuses on the effects of malnutrition and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on short-term-working-memory on children. These effects are important since defective working memory capacities limit the learning ability of young children and thus the success of investment in human capital. The study is based on an empirical study among 80 children (boys and girls) aged between 9 and 13 years old in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, conducted in 2010 in cooperation with UNICEF. The study involved testing the children on a number of working memory tests (Digit Span, Coding and Bourbon-Vos) and the Raven SPM intelligence test. Malnutrition was measured as stunting. The population of children living in Banda Aceh had been exposed to severe stress during the tsunami of December 2004 and its aftermath, and during the long-lasting violent conflict in the region. The study measured the degree of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) using the Child PTSD Symptoms Scale (CPSS). PTSD is proved to have similar effects on brain development as malnutrition and thus the effects of malnutrition on the working memory of children have to be controlled for the potential effects of PTSD. According to the results of the study, malnutrition is associated with a decrease in performance on the working memory tasks. On the contrary, intelligence measured by Raven's SPM was not associated with the decrease in performance on the working memory tasks, while it was found that a high score on the CPSS was indeed associated with a decrease in the performance on the three working memory tests. The study concludes with a discussion of the policy relevance of the results and sets out an agenda for further research.

Key words: PTSD, working memory, malnutrition, tsunami

JEL: I14, I21, I24