Recent research has uncovered a vital component of milk that exhibits long-term cognitive advantages for children.
A study revealed that formula fortified with milk fat globule membrane (MFGM) and lactoferrin for a year enhanced children’s IQ by five points at the age of five and a half. This effect was most noticeable in their ability to process information quickly and their visual-spatial skills.
This discovery presents a promising alternative for families who face difficulties breastfeeding.
- The study utilized formula enhanced with MFGM and lactoferrin, naturally occurring components in mammalian milk that are frequently eliminated in commercial infant formula.
- Children who consumed this enhanced formula exhibited a five-point IQ increase and significantly improved executive function when evaluated at five and a half years old.
- The benefits of enhanced formula persisted long after the feeding concluded, supporting the notion that early nutrition has a lasting impact on brain development.
While breast milk remains the optimal nutritional source for infants, many families encounter obstacles, such as medical or logistical challenges, that hinder them from exclusively breastfeeding. In the United States, only 45% of infants continue to be exclusively breastfed at three months of age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For years, researchers have sought to develop a viable supplement or substitute for breast milk to provide infants with the best possible foundation for healthy development. Recent research from the University of Kansas has demonstrated the potential of a complex milk component, when added to infant formula, to impart long-term cognitive benefits, including enhanced intelligence and executive function in children.
This study, led by John Colombo, director and investigator of the KU Life Span Institute, along with colleagues at Mead Johnson Nutrition and in Shanghai, China, further reinforces the scientific evidence supporting the significance of ingredients found in milk fat globule membrane (MFGM) in early human development.
The research, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, revealed that providing infants with formula fortified with MFGM and lactoferrin for 12 months led to a five-point increase in IQ at five and a half years of age.
These effects were most pronounced in assessments of children’s information processing speed and visual-spatial skills. Significant disparities were also observed in children’s performance on tests of executive function, which involve complex skills such as rule learning and inhibition.
According to Colombo, all mammalian milk varieties contain large fat globules encased in a membrane composed of a variety of nutrients essential for human nutrition and brain development. During the manufacturing process of milk-based infant formula, this membrane is typically eliminated.
“No one paid much attention to this membrane until chemical analyses revealed its remarkable complexity and the abundance of components that potentially contribute to health and brain development,”Colombo
The 2023 study builds upon an earlier one conducted by Colombo and colleagues in Shanghai, China, which was published in the Journal of Pediatrics in 2019. That study demonstrated that infants fed formula enriched with bovine MFGM and lactoferrin exhibited superior neurodevelopment test scores during their first year and displayed enhanced language skills at 18 months of age.
The global nutrition research community has been investigating MFGM for nearly a decade, Colombo explained. Due to the membrane’s intricate composition, it remains unclear whether a single component is responsible for these benefits or if the entire spectrum of nutrients collaborates to enhance brain and behavioral development.
The positive effects observed in children persisted long after they ceased formula feeding at 12 months of age.
“These findings align with the notion that early exposure to these nutritional components contributes to the long-term structural and functional integrity of the brain.”Colombo
To evaluate the neurodevelopmental outcomes at 5.5 years of age in children who were previously randomized to cow milk–based infant formula (control) or similar formula (milk fat globule membrane + lactoferrin) with added sources of bovine milk fat globule membrane and bovine lactoferrin through 12 months of age.
Children who completed study feeding were invited to participate in follow-up assessments: cognitive development across multiple domains (primary outcome; Wechsler Preschool & Primary Scale of Intelligence, 4th Edition), inhibitory control/rule learning (Stroop Task), flexibility/rule learning (Dimensional Change Card Sort), and behavior/emotion (Child Behavior Checklist).
Of 292 eligible participants (control: 148, milk fat globule membrane + lactoferrin: 144), 116 enrolled and completed assessments (control: 59, milk fat globule membrane + LF: 57). There were no group demographic differences except family income (milk fat globule membrane + lactoferrin significantly higher). Wechsler Preschool & Primary Scale of Intelligence, 4th Edition composite scores (mean ± standard error) for Visual Spatial (100.6 ± 1.7 vs 95.3 ± 1.7; P = .027), Processing Speed (107.1 ± 1.4 vs 100.0 ± 1.4; P < .001), and Full-Scale IQ (98.7 ± 1.4 vs 93.5 ± 1.5; P = .012) were significantly higher for milk fat globule membrane + lactoferrin versus control, even after controlling for demographic/socioeconomic factors. Stroop Task scores were significantly higher in milk fat globule membrane + lactoferrin versus control (P < .001). Higher Dimensional Change Card Sort scores (P = .013) in the border phase (most complex/challenging) were detected, and more children passed the border phase (32% vs 12%; P = .039) for milk fat globule membrane versus control. No group differences in Child Behavior Checklist score were detected.
Children who received infant formula to 12 months of age with added bovine milk fat globule membrane and bovine lactoferrin versus standard formula demonstrated improved cognitive outcomes in multiple domains at 5.5 years of age, including measures of intelligence and executive function.