A sugar molecule in breast milk boosts infant brain development

MEDFORD, Mass. — New research from the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University suggests that a micronutrient in human breast milk confers significant benefits to growing newborn brains. This finding builds upon the existing link between nutrition and brain health, and may potentially help optimize infant formulas used when breastfeeding isn’t an option.

“As a neuroscientist, it’s intriguing to me how profound the effects of micronutrients are on the brain,” says Thomas Biederer, senior scientist on the Neuroscience and Aging Team at the HNRCA, senior author of the study and a faculty member at the Yale School of Medicine, in a media release. “It’s also amazing how complex and rich human breast milk is, and I now think it is conceivable that its composition is dynamically changing to support different stages of infant brain development.”

The research team compared breast milk samples collected from the cities of Mexico City, Shanghai, and Cincinnati by the Global Exploration of Human Milk study, which included healthy mothers carrying a single child to with. They found that myo-inositol, a sugar molecule, was most prominent during the first month of lactation. During this time, the body is working overtime to quickly form the infant’s brain. Despite all of the mothers being from different parts of the world, this was true for everyone. Given that these levels were consistent across the women shows that the carb molecule is universally important for neural development.

Mother breastfeeding baby
(© seventyfour – stock.adobe.com)

More testing using rodents, as well as human neurons, added to this evidence, showing that myo-inositol increased both the size and number of neural synapse connections in the developing brain, which demonstrates stronger connectivity.

“Forming and refining brain connectivity from birth is guided by genetic and environmental forces as well as by human experiences,” says Biederer. “The impact of these factors is particularly important at two stages of life – during infancy, and later in life as one ages and synapses are gradually lost.”

Research has demonstrated that inositol levels in the brain go down over time. In adults, low levels have been noted in patients with major depression and bipolar disease. Additionally, genetic variations that alter myo-inositol transporters have been associated with schizophrenia. Interestingly, those with Down syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease seem to accumulate too much of the molecule.

“The current research does indicate that for circumstances where breastfeeding is not possible, it may be beneficial to increase the levels of myo-inositol in infant formula,” Biederer says.

“We don’t know why inositol levels are lower in adults with certain psychiatric conditions, or higher in those with certain other diseases,” the researcher adds.

Therefore, Biederer mentions that more evidence is necessary to determine if it’s beneficial for adults to eat more myo-inositol, which is found in lots of foods like grains, beans, bran, and citrus fruits. There are lots of research questions left unanswered, and Biederer and his team are determined to get to the bottom of it all.

“My colleagues at the HNRCA and I are now pursuing research to test how micronutrients like myo-inositol may impact cells and connectivity in the aging brain,” Biederer concludes. “We hope this work leads to a better understanding of how dietary factors interplay with age-related brain aberrations.”

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Another breast milk molecule may also reverse cerebral palsy

Researchers at the Duke University School of Medicine have also discovered a fatty acid in breast milk that can initiate the production of new white matter in the brain. White matter loss leads to neurological deficits such as cerebral palsy, and currently, there is no treatment to assist infants who have endured such losses.

The newly discovered lipid molecule in breast milk penetrates the brain, binding with stem cells and encouraging them to either transform into or produce cells known as oligodendrocytes. These cells act as a hub, facilitating the production of white matter in the central nervous system.

In preterm babies – those born alive before the 37th week of pregnancy – the newly produced white matter can prevent the neurological damage that would otherwise hinder the child’s ability to move, a characteristic feature of cerebral palsy.

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