Exposure to breast milk exposure improves neurocognitive outcomes in preterm babies. The corresponding study was published in the Annals of Neurology.
Each year, around 15 million children around the world are born preterm- before 37 weeks of gestation. Preterm birth is linked to an underdeveloped cerebral cortex and is the biggest cause of death and disability among newborn babies.
In the present study, researchers assessed data from 212 preterm babies, including how they were fed during neonatal intensive care and brain scans 40 weeks after conception. The cohort included 135 babies born before 32 weeks of gestation and 77 born to term.
In particular, the researchers compared MRI scans from preterm babies who exclusively consumed breast milk for over 75% of inpatient days, those who exclusively consumed breast milk for 75% or fewer inpatient days, and term-born controls.
In the end, they found that preterm babies who received high quantities of breast milk had a more mature cerebral cortex than those who received less. The relationship between brain development and breast milk consumption was dose-dependent: the more breast milk was consumed among preterm infants, the more their brains resembled those of babies born to term.
How exactly breast milk may enable cognitive development in preterm infants remains unknown. The researchers noted, however, that breast milk contains a variety of components that may support healthy cortical development, including optimal protein and lipid composition, and micronutrient availability, alongside components beneficial for immune system development and establishment of the gut microbiome.
The researchers concluded that breast milk might be able to optimize early cortical development following preterm birth. However, they noted that further studies are needed to understand whether the link between breast milk exposure and cortical maturation persists beyond term-equivalent age and to assess the functional consequences.
Sources: Neuroscience News, Annals of Neurology