redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online
By the age of two, babies who were breastfed exclusively for at least three months experienced enhanced development in parts of the brain responsible for language, cognition and emotional function compared to infants that were given at least some formula as infants, according to a new study.
A team of researchers used special child-friendly “quiet” magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines to study brain growth in children under the age of four. They discovered that breastfeeding alone produced better development in key areas of the brain than a combination of breast milk and baby formula, which in turn produced better results than the use of formula without breast milk. The results of their study are detailed online in the journal NeuroImage.
Previous research has produced similar results, correlating breastfeeding with improved cognitive outcomes in older adolescents and adults, the researchers said. However, they say that this is the first imaging study to search for differences associated with breastfeeding in the brains of very young, healthy children.
“We wanted to see how early these changes in brain development actually occur,” explained Sean Deoni, assistant professor of engineering at Brown University, the head of the institution´s Advanced Baby Imaging Lab, and lead author of the study. “We show that they´re there almost right off the bat.”
Using a special MRI technique that he developed, Deoni analyzed the microstructure of the brain´s white matter — the tissue which contains long nerve fibers and helps different areas of the brain communicate with one another. He and his colleagues specifically looked for myelin, the fatty material which insulates nerve fibers and speeds electrical signals as they travel throughout the brain.
Deoni´s team discovered that the exclusively breastfed group experienced the fastest growth of myelinated white matter of the three different groups, experiencing a “substantial” increase in white matter volume by the age of 24 months. The group which was fed both breastmilk and formula experienced less growth than the breastmilk-only group, but more than those who were fed only formula.
“We´re finding the difference [in white matter growth] is on the order of 20 to 30 percent, comparing the breastfed and the non-breastfed kids. I think it´s astounding that you could have that much difference so early,” Deoni said. “I think I would argue that combined with all the other evidence, it seems like breastfeeding is absolutely beneficial.”
To verify the results of the MRI scans, Deoni and his associates asked older children to complete a series of basic cognitive tests. Those exams revealed “increased language performance, visual reception, and motor control performance in the breastfed group,” the university reported.
“The study also looked at the effects of the duration of breastfeeding,” they added. The authors compared babies who had been breastfed for more than one year with those who had been breastfed for less than 12 months, and found “significantly enhanced brain growth in the babies who were breastfed longer — especially in areas of the brain dealing with motor function.”