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New Study Finds Breastfeeding Boosts Preemies’ Brain Growth

Breastfeeding May Fuel Brain Growth For Smallest Preemies

Micro-preemies who primarily consume breast milk have significantly higher levels of metabolites important for brain growth and development, according to new research.

“Our previous research established that vulnerable preterm infants who are fed breast milk early in life have improved brain growth and neurodevelopmental outcomes. It was unclear what makes breastfeeding so beneficial for newborns’ developing brains,” said Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain at Children’s National Health System.

“Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a non-invasive imaging technique that describes the chemical composition of specific brain structures, enables us to measure metabolites essential for growth and answer that lingering question.”

For the study, the researchers enrolled babies who were very low birthweight (less than 1,500 grams or 3.3 pounds) and 32 weeks gestational age or younger at birth when they were admitted to Children’s neonatal intensive care unit in the first week of life. The researchers gathered data from the right frontal white matter and the cerebellum, a brain region that enables people to maintain balance and proper muscle coordination and that supports high-order cognitive functions.

Each chemical has its own a unique spectral fingerprint, the researchers reported. They were able to generate light signatures for key metabolites and calculated the quantity of each metabolite.

What they discovered:

  • cerebral white matter spectra showed significantly greater levels of inositol, a molecule similar to glucose, for babies fed breast milk, compared with babies fed formula;
  • cerebellar spectra had significantly greater creatine levels for breastfed babies compared with infants fed formula;
  • the percentage of days infants were fed breast milk was associated with significantly greater levels of both creatine and choline, a water soluble nutrient.

“Key metabolite levels ramp up during the times babies’ brains experience exponential growth,” said Katherine M. Ottolini, M.D., the study’s lead author. “Creatine facilitates recycling of ATP, the cell’s energy currency. Seeing greater quantities of this metabolite denotes more rapid changes and higher cellular maturation. Choline is a marker of cell membrane turnover. When new cells are generated, we see choline levels rise.”

Children’s National leverages an array of imaging options that describe normal brain growth, which makes it easier to spot when fetal or neonatal brain development goes awry, enabling earlier intervention and more effective treatment, according to the researchers.

“Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy may serve as an important additional tool to advance our understanding of how breastfeeding boosts neurodevelopment for preterm infants,” Limperopoulos added.

The study’s findings were presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

Source: Children’s National Health System

Photo: Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain at Children’s National Health System. Credit: Children’s National.

Breastfeeding May Fuel Brain Growth For Smallest Preemies

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2019). Breastfeeding May Fuel Brain Growth For Smallest Preemies. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 7 May 2019 (Originally: 7 May 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 7 May 2019
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