Breastfeeding has various health benefits – for both the mother and the newborn child. For example, breast milk contains various antibodies that protect the infant’s immature immune system from infections. Breastfeeding mothers, in turn, have a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancer and metabolic diseases such as diabetes mellitus.
Researchers at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University in Massachusetts, USA, have now discovered a connection between the sugar molecule Myo-inositol contained in breast milk and the baby’s brain development. Accordingly, this micronutrient can be found in high doses in breast milk, especially during the first few months of breastfeeding – exactly when the neuronal connections in the child’s brain are developing particularly quickly. The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
The researchers examined breast milk samples from healthy mothers that were collected as part of the Global Exploration of Human Milk (GEHM) study in Mexico City, Cincinnati, and Shanghai. The concentration of Myo-inositol was shown to be independent of the ethnicity and the social background of the mother, which can have an impact on eating habits, for example.
Further tests on rodent and human neurons showed that Myo-inositol increases both the size and number of neuronal connections in the developing brain.
Micronutrients quickly get into the baby’s brain
“The formation and refinement of brain wiring are driven from birth by genetic and environmental forces, as well as human experience,” says Thomas Biederer, senior scientist on the Neuroscience and Aging team at HNRCA and lead author of the study, in a university press release. The influence of these factors is particularly crucial in two phases of life: during infancy and with increasing age when synaptic connections are gradually lost.
Nutrition and nutrition may play a particularly crucial role in the development of infants and young children because their blood-brain barrier is more permeable than in adults, allowing micronutrients from food to reach the brain more easily. “As a neuroscientist, it is fascinating to me how profound the effects of micronutrients are on the brain,” says Biederer.
Previous research has shown that brain levels of inositol decrease as children develop. In adults suffering from severe depression or bipolar disorder, scientists found lower levels of inositol than in healthy adults. However, it is still unclear whether the low inositol level is the cause of the disease or possibly a side effect of the drugs used to treat it.
The sugar molecule Myo-inositol is found in certain grains, as well as in beans, bran, and melons. Due to the unanswered questions, however, Biederer does not advise adults at this point to pay particular attention to their Myo-inositol consumption. For the neuroscientist, it is different with infants who are not breastfed. The findings of the study could help to improve formulas for milk substitutes.