Parents naturally want to do everything they can to optimize brain development in their children.
The first years of life are a critical window when nutrition lays the foundation for lifelong brain health and abilities.
A new study shows that an infant formula augmented with certain milk fats and an immune protein offers cognitive advantages that persist years later in childhood.
- Children fed milk fat globule membrane and lactoferrin formula as infants scored higher on IQ and executive function tests at age 5 compared to control formula.
- Benefits were seen in visual-spatial skills, processing speed, overall IQ, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility.
- Effects persisted years after the enriched formula feeding ended, suggesting sustained benefits from the early nutrition.
- Adds to evidence that mimicking human milk may optimize neurodevelopment.
Source: Journal of Pediatrics 2023
Enriched Infant Formula & Enhanced Cognitive Function in Children
The research, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, followed children in China who were fed either a standard cow’s milk-based formula or an experimental formula supplemented with milk fat globule membrane (MFGM) and lactoferrin from birth to 12 months.
At age 5, those who had received the enriched formula as babies performed better on several tests of intelligence and executive function compared to the control group.
Results provide strong evidence that the nutritive effects of receiving MFGM and lactoferrin in infant formula during early infancy persist longitudinally at later developmental stages.
Mimicking the Gold Standard: Breast Milk
While formula makers have long tried to match the complete nutrition profile of breast milk, there are still many beneficial bioactive components that remain to be replicated.
Milk fat globule membrane and lactoferrin are natural components of human breast milk thought to contribute to early brain development.
MFGM is a complex phospholipid membrane that envelopes fat droplets and contains proteins, enzymes, and immune-modulating fats. It makes up about 1-4% of human milk.
Past studies suggest MFGM may benefit neurodevelopment, gut health, and immunity in infancy.
Lactoferrin is an abundant milk protein involved in nutrient absorption and natural immunity.
By specially sourcing these ingredients from cow’s milk and adding them to formula, researchers aimed to test whether they might convey developmental advantages similar to breastfeeding.
Persistent Intelligence (IQ) & Executive Function Gains
The randomized trial enrolled over 200 healthy newborns who were exclusively fed either the control formula or the MFGM/lactoferrin-enriched formula for their first 4 months, then partially through 12 months.
Around 40% later returned for follow-up cognitive testing at age 5 using validated standard tests.
On the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence test (WPPSI-IV), the children who had received the enriched formula scored significantly higher on 3 major domains:
- Visual spatial skills: Assesses visual attention to detail and processing complex images.
- Processing speed: Measures speed of mental information processing and visual discrimination.
- Full-scale IQ: Composite score reflecting overall intellectual ability.
After adjusting for family demographics like income and education, the IQ and domain benefits remained significant, with roughly 5-7 point differences favoring the enriched formula group.
Although group differences in IQ scores were smaller than those associated with some developmental risk conditions, they compare favorably to other previously tested nutrient interventions in preschool-age children, which demonstrated small or no effects.
On tests of executive function, which represent coordinated mental skills like focus, reasoning, and cognitive flexibility, the enriched formula group also outperformed controls.
- The Stroop test: Requires inhibiting an instinctual response in favor of a rule-based one. The MFGM/lactoferrin children scored higher.
- Dimensional Change Card Sort test: Evaluates cognitive switching. More children passed the most challenging phase if they had received enriched formula.
Overall, data suggest that the specific Milk fat globule membrane and lactoferrin ingredients provided cognitive advantages that were sustained years after formula feeding ended in infancy.
The benefits covered both broad IQ measures and specific neurobehavioral constructs underlying executive functions that develop later and predict success.
Early Nutrition Programs the Brain
The observation that this nutritional intervention improves not only standardized test performance, but also behavioral constructs that signify coordination of lower-order skills and contribute to sophisticated behaviors such as conditional responding, problem solving, and higher-order reasoning is remarkable.
Indeed, the persistence of cognitive benefits years after feeding stopped suggests that the infant formula ingredients provided specialized nutrition during a critical window of rapid brain development.
The first 2 years of life represent a sensitive period when nutrition and experiences shape neural wiring and processes that support learning.
Enriched nutrition in infancy may “program” the brain for optimal maturation.
This is consistent with the concept of “the first 1000 days” as a vital period to establish lifelong trajectories.
Follow-up is ongoing to determine if these cognitive gains achieved by 5 years old remain through later childhood and beyond.
Advancing Nutrition in Neurodevelopment
The study adds to a body of evidence that augmenting infant formula with specific bioactive milk components supports neurocognitive development, bringing science closer to replicating nature’s perfect food.
Along with matching levels of essential fatty acids like DHA, enriching formula with MFGM, lactoferrin and other key milk elements during the crucial first year of life may provide developmental advantages.
Further research is needed, but data add to a growing and consistent body of evidence that suggests the use of dietary MFGM components in infancy may confer durable benefits on cognitive development.
As parents seek the best nutrition for their infant’s maturing brain, the study provides compelling evidence that not all formulas are equal.
Mimicking the complex nutritional package of human breast milk more closely may offer lifelong cognitive gains.
- Paper: Improved neurodevelopmental outcomes at 5.5 years of age in children who received bovine milk fat globule membrane and lactoferrin in infant formula through 12 months: a randomized controlled trial (2023)
- Authors: John Colombo et al.