Human breast milk found to enhance cognitive development in babies

young mother breastfeeding her baby on couch
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New research suggests that a carbohydrate found in breast milk is shown to affect a baby’s neurodevelopment

Previous animal studies have shown that the carbohydrate, oligosaccharide 2’FL – which is found in maternal milk – positively influences neurodevelopment. Now, investigators from the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and in collaboration with the University of California, San Diego, have completed the first human study.

The study published in PLOS ONE has shown that the 2’FL found in breast milk enhances cognitive development.

Early exposure to 2’FL

In this cohort study of 50 mothers and their babies, researchers analysed breast milk composition and frequency of feeding at 1 and 6 months of age. Cognitive development was measured at 24 months using the Bayley-III scale, a standardised test of infant and toddler development.

The study showed that the amount of 2’FL in breast milk in the first month of feeding was related to significantly higher cognitive development scores in babies by 2 years of age. The amount of 2’FL in breast milk at six months of feeding was not related to cognitive outcomes, indicating that early exposure may be more beneficial.

As many studies have reported a positive effect of breastfeeding on cognitive development, Michael Goran, PhD, Director of the Diabetes and Obesity Program at The Saban Research Institute of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and senior author on the study explained that: “We wanted to specifically identify what was causing this effect.”

Validating existing data

Co-author Lars Bode, PhD, Professor of Paediatrics and Director of the Mother-Milk-Infant Center of Research Excellence at the University of California, San Diego said: “Through our high-throughput analytical platform we can quantify oligosaccharides like 2’FL and many others in hundreds of breast milk samples in a short period of time,

“This technology allows us to associate differences in milk composition with specific infant outcomes like cognitive development, validating existing data from preclinical models or generating entirely new hypotheses.”

Using a statistical technique called mediation analysis, the investigators were able to independently evaluate the effects of breastfeeding in general, and the effects of the oligosaccharide 2’FL.

The production of 2’FL has an impact

Paige Berger, PhD, RD, a postdoctoral research associate at CHLA and the first author of the study said: “This enhanced cognitive development in the first two years of life raises the question of possible long term impact on a child in school and beyond.”

These observations allowed the team to conclude that the increased neurodevelopment provided by breastfeeding was due primarily to mothers who were producing more 2’FL for the baby to consume.

Goran said: “We know that there are many different compounds in breast milk and the composition is dynamic – it changes over time and is highly variable between mothers. In addition to identifying the impact of oligosaccharide 2’FL, we also wanted to determine the timing of when it is most critical to a child’s development.”

2’FL as an add-on supplement

While the investigators observed neuroenhancement explained by higher 2’FL during the first month of a baby’s life, this effect was not observed when looking at 2’FL content of breast milk at the six-month time-point.

Therefore, being able to identify factors critical to early neurodevelopment offers the possibility for supplementing women’s breast milk in individuals who produce lower quantities of this important substance.

Berger said: “For some women, breastfeeding is a challenge. For those that are not able to breastfeed or can only do so short-term, 2’FL could potentially be offered as an add-on to the nutrition their baby is receiving to better support cognitive development.”

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