How Breastfeeding Benefits Babies’ Brains

A pioneering new study on preemies by researchers from the Children’s National Health System has discovered that breast milk optimizes white matter microstructural organization throughout the entire brain—including both hemispheres of the cerebrum and cerebellum—more effectively than formula. This cutting-edge research adds to a growing body of empirical evidence showing that breastfeeding and breast milk improve infants’ overall brain health and functional connectivity.

The premature infants examined during this study were born under 1500 grammes birth weight prior to 32 weeks and had been admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) within the first 48 hours of life. The CDC estimates that approximately one in 10 infants are born prematurely in the United States each year.

Regional cerebellar and cerebral white matter microstructures were examined using state-of-the-art neuroimaging to identify differences between preterm infants at term-equivalent age and healthy term-born control neonates who had consumed breast milk or a manufactured formula specifically designed to meet the nutritional needs of premature infants. (Cerebellar is the sister word to cerebral and means “relating to or located in the cerebellum.”)

White matter is composed of bundles of myelinated axons which act as communication lines between various grey matter areas throughout the entire brain. White matter is located beneath cerebral and cerebellar grey matter cortices and makes up about half of the brain’s total volume. White matter is a central player in healthy human development as well as many neurological disorders.

Wikimedia Commons/Life Sciences Database

Cerebellum in red. 
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Life Sciences Database
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 Twenty-first-century advances in neuroimaging technology have dramatically improved the ability of neuroscientists to study white matter microstructures using a technique called “diffusion tensor imaging” (DTI) to enhance typical use of MRI brain scans. The researchers were able to leverage advanced DTI methods and 3-D volumetric magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to calculate brain volumes by region, structure and tissue type. This included gray matter and white matter in the cerebrum and cerebellum.
“This DTI study provides evidence that complications of premature birth are associated with the altered cerebellar microstructural organization when compared with term-born control infants.” this was concluded after a research.

In many ways, the architectural structure of both hemispheres of the cerebellum mirror that of the left and right hemispheres of the cerebrum. i.e. The cerebellum has an external cerebellar cortex and deep cerebellar white matter called the “arbor vitae” (Latin for “tree of life”).

Robust white matter microstructural organisation within the cerebrum and cerebellum is correlated with better neurologic outcomes in both preterm and full-term infants. The scaffolding for critical white matter architecture begins to form in the womb and is augmented for the rest of a person’s life when, for instance, he or she attempts to master a new skill.

The neurodevelopmental benefits of breast milk in term infants have been well established, with both short- and long-term benefits, including improved cognitive and behavioural outcomes and overall child health.


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