February 1, 2021

March of Dimes, the nation’s leader in the fight for the health of all moms and babies, has named Dr. Michael Georgieff from the University of Minnesota as the winner of the 2020 Agnes Higgins Award for pivotal research linking iron deficiency early in life and long-term mental health. In particular, Dr. Georgieff’s uncovered basic mechanisms by which iron deficiency in newborns affects the brain’s development and can lead to lasting neurobehavioral challenges, such as poor attention and increased risk of anxiety, depression and schizophrenia. For 20 years, March of Dimes has recognized the achievements of more than 30 leaders in the field of maternal-fetal nutrition focused on research, education or clinical services through the Agnes Higgins Award.

“We are pleased to recognize Dr. Georgieff with the 2020 Agnes Higgins Award, which is part of March of Dimes’ efforts to promote and advance science that can improve the health of all moms and babies,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, Chief Medical and Health Officer, Senior Vice President and Interim Chief Scientific Officer at March of Dimes. “His extraordinary research is instrumental in advancing our understanding of the important role of maternal nutrition on infant health, in particular how nutrition impacts early brain development that can have lasting effects into adulthood.”

Dr. Michael Georgieff is the Martin Lenz Harrison Land Grant Chair in Pediatrics, Professor of Pediatrics, Obstetrics/Gynecology and Child Psychology, the Executive Vice Chair of the Department of Pediatrics, the Director of the Center for Neurobehavioral Development at the Medical School and co-Director of the Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain at the University of Minnesota. He uncovered the basic mechanisms by which iron deficiency in children younger than age three can lead to long-term neurological deficits, even if they receive a diagnosis and treatment for iron deficiency anemia. Nutrients help rapidly develop a healthy brain, including key areas like the hippocampus, between the late fetal period and postnatal period up to age three. When iron deficiency occurs, it can delay the development of the hippocampus and reduce plasticity, leading to structural abnormalities that remain present into adulthood that can affect learning and memory function. Additionally, iron deficiency alters gene expression of important proteins and these alternations can lead to schizophrenia, mood disorders and autism.

Given the high rates of iron deficiency worldwide, Dr. Georgieff’s research speaks to the need for improved methods to screen iron status early on before disruption to the brain occurs to reduce the long-term negative effects on mental health. As an advisor to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Institutes of Health and UNICEF on nutrition and early child development, Dr. Georgieff’s work has impacted public policy in the U.S. and around the world.

“From the time that I was a young door-knocker in my neighborhood for March of Dimes, I have believed in the mission of this nonprofit organization. I am so thrilled and proud to be honored by an organization that I’ve admired for so long,” said Dr. Georgieff. “Fundamentally, my life’s work demonstrates that there are critical time periods in which iron nutrients must be delivered by the mother during pregnancy or to the baby in the first two years of life in order to build a healthy brain for their lifespan. If inadequate nutrition is provided during those critical periods, the effects carry over for years. The real cost to society of early life malnutrition is that it reduces educational and job potential in childhood and adulthood, respectively.”

Established in 1980, the Agnes Higgins Award honors the late Agnes Higgins of the Montreal Diet Dispensary for her innovation and years of service to improve maternal nutrition. Find more information about the Agnes Higgins Award here.