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Diet for Brain Development, From the Beginning

By Rosalie Marion Bliss
November 21, 2007

Studies looking into how diet and nutrition affect central nervous system development from birth are being conducted by Agricultural Research Service (ARS)-funded scientists. They are using noninvasive tools to assess infant, toddler and school-aged children's psychological, neurological and physiological development, as well as other brain-related functions.

Healthy newborns soak up information from their surroundings while their developing brains sprout billions of nerve cell connections, or synapses. The brain's "hardwiring" actually starts in the womb, directed by the growing fetus' genetic game plan acquired from both parents. Good nutrition is key to supporting the growth of this network of neurons from the beginning.

ARS, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency, is funding research at the Arkansas Children's Nutrition Center (ACNC), which is managed cooperatively by ARS and the Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock, Ark.

Among other projects, Terry Pivik, a psychophysiologist who heads the ACNC's Brain Function Laboratory, and Janet Gilchrist, who heads the ACNC's Clinical Nutrition Unit, are interested in defining best feeding practices for brain development among infants and children.

For a project called The Beginnings Study, researchers are using measures of brain activity, behavior and growth to study hundreds of infants who have been reared exclusively on one of the three most commonly fed infant diets: breast milk, cow's milk formula or soy-based formula.

So far, preliminary results indicate that there are slight cognitive and language advantages among the breast-fed infants at 6 and 12 months, compared with infants in the two formula-fed groups. The researchers caution that these differences will require further evaluation in the context of other contributory factors. The study will continue for several more years.

Brain development continues throughout early childhood and is now believed to undergo a second wave of dramatic functional changes during adolescence, according to experts.

Read more about this research in the November/December 2007 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.