Nutritional Influences on Early Infant and Child Brain Development

A child’s brain undergoes tremendous changes during the growing period from birth to three—producing more than a million neural connections each second. This process continues allowing the brain to develop and change into adulthood, however, it is known that the first 8 years of early -life periods encompass the peak period of brain growth, coincide with the emergence of nearly all fundamental cognitive and behavioral skills and abilities, and overlap with the earliest onset and symptoms of a wide breadth of developmental, intellectual, and psychiatric disorders.

It is increasingly recognized that altered brain development throughout this sensitive period can negatively affect cognitive and behavioral outcomes. The development of safe and noninvasive neuroimaging techniques has provided new insights into patterns of early structural and functional neurodevelopment, the relationships between brain growth and emerging brain function, and the influence of environmental, genetic, and nutritional factors on shaping these brain-function relationships. In particular, nutrition is a critical and readily modifiable influence that can profoundly impact early brain maturation. This presentation will provide an overview current understanding of early-life nutrition and its effects on the developing brain as illustrated by neuroimaging.

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A child’s brain undergoes tremendous changes during the growing period from birth to three—producing more than a million neural connections each second.1 Early life brain development is also characterised by rapid myelination – a protective sheath of fatty acids wrap around the axons of neurons to enables faster transfer of information across the neural network, which then facilitates the maturation of functional systems in the brain. It is known that the first eight years of life is when the peak of brain growth occurs, coinciding with the emergence of nearly all fundamental cognitive and behavioural skills and abilities.

The development of safe and non-invasive neuroimaging techniques has provided new insights into patterns of early structural and functional neurodevelopment, the relationships between brain growth and emerging brain function, and the influence of environmental, genetic, and nutritional factors on shaping these brain-function relationships.  In particular, nutrition is a critical and readily modifiable influence that can profoundly impact early brain maturation.  For instance, studies have shown that breastfeeding impacts brain development, white matter growth and IQ scores.2,3,4 Magnetic resonance imaging studies support these findings; exclusive breastfeeding demonstrated improved white matter development and structural maturation in several brain regions compared with formula-fed infants [Figure 1].5 Subsequently, it has been shown that the improvements in overall myelination in breastfed children was accompanied by increased general, verbal, and non-verbal cognitive abilities compared to children who were exclusively formula-fed.

Exclusive breastfeeding was associated with improved myelination in brain.
Figure 1. Exclusive breastfeeding was associated with improved myelination in brain.5
 

Evidence suggests, however, that not all formulas are created equally. Significant developmental differences exist depending on the formula composition; in particular, long-chain fatty acids, iron, choline, sphingomyelin and folic acid are significantly associated with early myelination trajectories.6

In summary, imaging studies underscore the critical role that nutrition play in early brain development. Results emphasize the importance of specific nutrients to white matter maturation; formulas with high DHA and sphingomyelin content appear to promote improved myelination and brain maturation, concurrent with improved cognitive development.


References:

  1. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/brain-architecture/. Accessed June 2021.
  2. Kafouri S, et al. Int J Epidemiol. 2013 Feb;42(1):150-9.  
  3. Isaacs EB, et al. Pediatr Res. 2010 Apr;67(4):357-62.
  4. Luby JL, et al. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2016 May;55(5):367-75.
  5. Deoni SCL, et al.Neuroimage 2013; 82: 77–86.
  6. Deoni S, et al. Neuroimage. 2018 Sep;178:649-659.