Isaacs EB, Fischl BR, Quinn BT, Chong WK, Gadian DG, Lucas A. (2009) Pediatr Res. Dec 22. [Epub ahead of print]
Although observational findings linking breast milk to higher scores on cognitive tests may be confounded by factors associated with mothers' choice to breastfeed, it has been suggested that one or more constituents of breast milk facilitate cognitive development, particularly in preterms. Because cognitive scores are related to head size, we hypothesised that breast milk mediates cognitive effects by affecting brain growth.
We used detailed data from a randomized feeding trial to calculate percentage of breast milk (%EBM) in the infant diet of 50 adolescents. MRI scans were obtained (mean age=15y9m), allowing volumes of total brain (TBV), white and grey matter (WMV, GMV) to be calculated. In the total group %EBM correlated significantly with Verbal IQ (VIQ); in boys, with all IQ scores, TBV and WMV. VIQ was, in turn, correlated with WMV and, in boys only, additionally with TBV. No significant relationships were seen in girls or with grey matter.
These data support the hypothesis that breast milk promotes brain development, particularly white matter growth. The selective effect in males accords with animal and human evidence regarding gender effects of early diet. Our data have important neurobiological and public health implications and identify areas for future mechanistic study.