A new study has found that carnitine intake in new-born babies in the first postnatal weeks promotes better growth and larger brain size.
A recent study from the University of Eastern Finland and Kuopio University Hospital found that carnitine intake from breast milk appears to be associated with better growth.
The findings have been published in the journal Nutrients.
What is carnitine?
Carnitine is a compound similar to amino acids. The primary function of carnitine is to transport long-chain fatty acids in the body to the cell mitochondria to facilitate energy production.
Previous studies have suggested that carnitine may also be involved in the development of the nervous system. Carnitine is obtained from nutrition but can also be produced naturally by the body. The main sources of carnitine in preterm infants are breast milk and infant formula containing carnitine.
“Every preterm infant born before 32 weeks of gestation is at risk of developing carnitine deficiency due to limited tissue stores, immature endogenous synthesis, and insufficient intake from nutrition. Due to rapid growth, they also have an increased need for carnitine,” explained Suvi Manninen, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Eastern Finland.
No previous study has investigated the associations between carnitine intake and serum carnitine levels in relation to the growth and brain size of preterm infants.
In the new study, researchers measured carnitine levels in preterm infants at three-time points. The team calculated the intake of nutrients, including carnitine, over the first five postnatal weeks. The researchers analysed the links between serum carnitine levels and nutrition by monitoring the growth of weight, length, and head circumference of the babies. They also measured brain diameters determined by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
The results showed that carnitine intake, free carnitine, and short-chain acylcarnitine concentrations in serum all led to better growth in preterm infants, especially in cerebellar size.
The debate around carnitine supplementation
Dietary carnitine was also correlated with free carnitine and short-chain acylcarnitine concentrations in serum. These findings have led the researcher to suggest that these carnitine levels can be considered markers of carnitine intake.
“Both breast milk and infant formulae contain varying amounts of carnitine. Parenteral nutrition, i.e., nutrient preparations that are given intravenously, on the other hand, usually do not contain carnitine,” said Ulla Sankilampi, professor, and neurologist at Kuopio University Hospital.
It is possible to administer carnitine parenterally; however, evidence surrounding the benefits of carnitine supplementation has often been contradictory. Currently, carnitine supplementation is not generally recommended in parenteral nutrition guidelines for preterm infants.
“Further research is still needed on whether carnitine supplementation is necessary during prolonged parenteral nutrition and, on the other hand, whether breast milk should be enriched with carnitine in some situations in the dietary treatment of preterm infants,” added Sankilampi.