Feeding infants formula supplemented with MFGM and lactoferrin for 12 months raised IQ by five points at five-and-a-half years of age, a study in the Journal of Pediatrics found.
The effects were most evident in tests of children’s speed of processing information and visual-spatial skills. Significant differences were also seen in their performance on tests of executive function – complex skills involving rule learning and inhibition.
Milk fat globule membrane ‘remarkably complex’
The research, led by the University of Kansas in collaboration with colleagues from Mead Johnson Nutrition and Shanghai, adds to the growing scientific support for the importance of ingredients found in MFGM to early human development.
All forms of mammalian milk contain large fat globules that are surrounded by a membrane composed of a variety of nutrients important to human nutrition and brain development, John Colombo, KU Life Span Institute director and investigator, said. When milk-based infant formula is manufactured, the membrane is typically removed during processing.
“No one thought much about this membrane until chemical analyses showed that it's remarkably complex and full of components that potentially contribute to health and brain development,” said Colombo.
Early exposure may contribute to long-term brain structure and function
Breast milk is widely acknowledged as the most beneficial nutrition for infants, but many families face medical or logistical challenges in breastfeeding. In the European region, just 25% of babies continue to be exclusively breastfed at the age of six months – one of the lowest rates in the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
For decades, researchers have sought to create a viable complement or alternative to breast milk to give children their best start for healthy development.
This recent research was a follow-up to a 2019 study that Colombo co-wrote with colleagues in Shanghai, which showed that babies who were fed formula with added bovine MFGM and lactoferrin scored higher on neurodevelopmental tests during the first year and on some aspects of language at 18 months of age.
The global nutrition research community has been looking at MFGM for about a decade, Colombo said. Because the membrane is made up of several different components, it is not known whether one of the components is responsible for these benefits, or whether the entire package of nutrients act together to improve brain and behavioural development.
These benefits were seen in children long after the end of formula feeding at 12 months of age.
“This is consistent with the idea that early exposure to these nutritional components contribute[s] to the long-term structure and function of the brain,” said Colombo.