Health and Medicine Neuroscience

Brain Growth in Premature Infants Greater With the Help of Breast Milk


New studies conducted on premature infants in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at St. Louis Children’s Hospital show a correlation between regular breast milk consumption and greater brain growth. These results appeared in babies who were offered a diet of mainly breast milk up until the age of one month. Numbers were tested against babies who received no breast milk at all or a limited amount of it.

Infants who received breast milk as half or more of their daily nutritional intake not only had more brain tissue, but also displayed much larger cortical-surface area by the time of their due dates. The findings will be officially released on May 3rd at the Pediatric Academic Societies meeting in Baltimore.

Cynthia Rogers, MD, assistant professor of child psychiatry at St. Louis Children’s Hospital and senior investigator says babies who are born prior to their expected due dates do not have fully developed brains. Since breast milk has been shown to help in other types of development, the team decided to see what it could do for preemies. MRI scans showed that when babies received more breast milk, their brain volumes were much larger. This is an important piece of information because previous studies have shown that brain volume and cognitive development go hand in hand.

As prematurely babies are still developing, they usually have smaller brains than full-term infants. Shown in this illustration are depictions of the cortical-surface area of the brain at different stages of gestation. (Image credit : Eric Young / WUSTL )

During the study, the team tracked the breast milk intake of 77 preterm babies while in the NICU. Brain scans of the infants were taken on the day the babies were expected to have been born. Erin Reynolds, a research technician who works under Rogers says that as the amount of breast milk increased for the children, the chances of the cortical surface being larger were also much greater. Since this part of the brain is known to be linked to cognition, a larger cortex area would mean better cognitive abilities as the babies continue to develop.

Premature birth is a leading cause of neurologic problems and is also directly linked to psychiatric issues later on in life. The study continues on these 77 children, as Rogers and her team are going to keep a close eye on them for the next few years to get a better understanding of their motor, cognitive and social development. The data will help future researchers understand the importance of breast milk early on in a child’s life. Rogers says she would like to see if brain size has any effect on milestones in human development as the infants continue to grow. She is interested to see if breast milk quickly changes the brain or has a long term effect that gradually arises.

Researchers are still not quite sure what it is in breast milk that promotes the development of the brain and she would like to see how breast milk affects infants who were not born early.