Food for neurons: the role of breast milk in shaping our brains

Breast milk is often referred to as “liquid gold” because of its many benefits for newborns. A new study from Tufts University has discovered a particular sugar molecule present in human breast milk that may be key to both young and aging brain growth. The results of the study suggest groundbreaking conclusions about infant nutrition and adult brain health.

The study was conducted at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University. Experts discovered a trace element known as myo-inositol in human breast milk and demonstrated its significant positive effects on the developing brains of infants. The study establishes a key role for this micronutrient in early life and sets the stage for studying how myo-inositol may function in the brain throughout aging.

One of the most interesting aspects of the study was the discovery that myo-inositol is found in the highest amounts in human breast milk during the first few months of lactation. This is a critical period when an infant’s brain is rapidly forming neural connections called synapses. Interestingly, the researchers found that this amount was the same in mothers from different ethnic groups and geographic regions. By analyzing and comparing milk samples from Mexico City, Shanghai and Cincinnati, the researchers found global uniformity in myo-inositol content.

Thomas Biederer, a senior scientist in HNRCA’s Neuroscience and Aging Group, senior author of the study and a faculty member at Yale School of Medicine, emphasizes the remarkable complexity of human experience in shaping brain development. He notes the brain’s particular sensitivity to dietary factors during infancy, given the more permeable nature of the blood-brain barrier. Biederer further develops the idea that diet, as one of the environmental forces, represents a rich field of study.

“As a neuroscientist, I’m intrigued by how profoundly micronutrients affect the brain,” says Biederer. “It’s amazing how complex and rich breast milk is, and I now think it’s safe to assume that its composition changes dynamically to support different stages of infant brain development.”

The similar presence of myo-inositol in different geographic locations emphasizes its universal role in human brain development. But its importance is not limited to infancy. Researchers have also found a link between inositol levels in the brain and certain adult mental illnesses such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disease, schizophrenia, Down syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease.

The study offers promising prospects for improving infant formula in cases where breastfeeding may not be possible. The discovery deepens our understanding of the link between nutrition and brain health and has the potential to revolutionize infant nutrition and adult brain health.

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