The Nutricious and Delicious Brain
Infancy and early childhood are rapid and sensitive periods of cognitive and behavioral development. This cognitive development is mirrored by the changing brain structure, function, and connectivity and requires the orchestrated delivery of key nutrients, including lipids, minerals, vitamins, and micronutrients.
Professor Sean Deoni
Infancy and early childhood are rapid and sensitive periods of cognitive and behavioral development. This cognitive development is mirrored by the changing brain structure, function, and connectivity. Prenatally, core brain structures develop, neural connections are formed via synaptogenesis, and the cortical structure emerges. Postnatally, neural circuits and systems are further refined by synaptic pruning and myelination. Myelin acts to speed electrical impulses along the axon and is critical for normal brain messaging and connectivity. There is a close spatio-temporal relationship between the pattern of myelination and the onset of new cognitive skills and abilities.
Brain development and maintenance requires the orchestrated delivery of key nutrients, including lipids, minerals, vitamins, and micronutrients. Long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFAs) such as DHA and ARA promote healthy neural growth and development, regulate membrane function, and are involved in lipid biosynthesis and myelination. They make up around 20% of the fatty acid content of the brain. Iron is utilized by the myelin producing cells as a key energy source and zinc helps bind myelin basic proteins to the myelin membrane. Premature infants fed non-DHA supplemented formula showed brain immaturity relative to supplemented or breastfed infants. Low birth weight infants given sphingomyelin fortified formula has improved cognitive performance and processing speed at 18 months of age. Breastmilk provides each of these key nutrients as they are needed and in the quantity they are needed. Infant formulas also provide many of these nutrients, but in differing quantities from human milk and with considerable variabilities across formula types and brands. Early brain development in breast and formula-fed infants was examined with 123 children ages 6-60 months. Significant increases in fine motor skills, visual reception, receptive language, and expressive language were found in those that were breast fed. Further information is needed to understand the role that infant nutrition may play in cognitive development.