In a study of six-year-olds, researchers found no IQ
differences between kids who were fed formula supplemented with long-chain
polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) as infants and those who got regular
formula, but the PUFA kids were notably faster at picture-matching
games. "Babies need LC-PUFAs for brain growth and development, but studies
such as ours show that the benefits persist after infancy and can affect later
development," lead author Dr Peter Willatts of the University of Dundee in
the UK told Reuters Health.
Fatty acids are important components of nerve cell membranes
and are found naturally in breastmilk. They are thought to play an important
role in brain development, but are not included in many infant formulas. In
previous studies, babies on PUFA formula tended to learn faster and be more
attentive, and the evidence for benefits in older kids is growing, Willatts
said by email.
For his team's new study, infants in several European
countries were randomly divided into three groups of 70 for four months: one
group was given formula containing the fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
and arachidonic acid (ARA), one was given regular formula and a third was breastfed.
The researchers later measured the children's intelligence, attention control
and mental processing speed.
The two formula groups had the same average IQ scores, but
the PUFA group processed information faster in a picture-matching game. Kids in
the PUFA group were quickest to match pictures, followed
by the breastfed group and then the regular formula group, according to the
results published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition."The PUFA
children were 20% faster at solving the problems, than the other formula
group," Willatts said. "You probably wouldn't notice this when watching
them complete the tests, but the fact that there is an improvement which can be
measured is a very important finding."
Long term cognitive
"Researchers can't say for certain that faster
processing would affect all areas of learning in later life, but the measure is
related to better performance on reading and math, he said."Long term
cognitive benefits of including DHA and ARA (two important PUFAs) in infant
formula have now been shown in two studies that differ in many aspects of
design and were conducted in different parts of the world," said Susan
Carlson, a nutritionist at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas
City, who recently authored a similar study in the same journal.
Carlson's study in Kansas and Missouri did find a difference
in IQ between formula groups at six years of age, but, she said, that may be because
Carlson gave infants higher percentages of important PUFAs and continued the
supplementation for the first 12 months of life, versus four months in the European
In most studies, breastfed kids score on average three to
five points higher on IQ tests than formula babies, regardless of PUFAs they
consume, which Willatts said can't easily be explained. The difference may
result from other factors, such as the fact that mothers who breastfeed are
more often highly educated with higher incomes than mothers who do not.
Both Willatts and Carlson strongly recommend that parents
who choose not to breastfeed choose PUFA formulas, which isn't difficult to do
in the US and Europe, they said."Almost all formulas now contain PUFAs,
although the amount varies," Willatts said of UK brands. In some countries
there are cheaper formulas available without PUFAs, he said. Carlson said she
is not aware of any formulas in the US that do not contain the fatty acids, but
some mothers still make their own formulas with evaporated milk, corn syrup and
water, which would not contain PUFAs.