June 2, 2008 / 7:15 PM / 10 years ago

Fatty acids improve preterm infants' mental abilities

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Very preterm infants who are fed human milk that is supplemented with fatty acids show signs of improved intellectual development, or “cognition,” at 6 months of age, researchers in Norway report in the medical journal Pediatrics.

During pregnancy, fatty acids are transferred to the fetus by placental proteins and incorporated into cell membranes, Dr. Christian Andre Drevon and colleagues explain. However, premature infants are relatively deprived of two fatty acids — docosahexaenoic acid and arachidonic acid — because human milk supplies less than the fetus receives in the womb.

Drevon, at the University of Oslo, and colleagues examined the effect of adding docosahexaenoic acid and arachidonic acid supplements to human breast milk, which was given to very low birth weight (VLBW) infants (birth weight less than 1500 grams, or about 3.3 lbs.). Infants with major birth defects or cerebral hemorrhage were excluded from the study.

Milk was supplemented with 32 milligrams docosahexaenoic acid and 31 milligrams arachidonic acid per 100 milliliter of milk, and was also fortified with proteins, minerals, vitamins, iron, and folic acid.

The infants were randomly assigned to the docosahexaenoic acid/arachidonic acid supplementation group (n = 62) or the control group (n = 67) until hospital discharge (average 63 days).

At corrected age of 6 months, the intervention group performed significantly better on the problem-solving subscore of the Ages and Stages questionnaire (53.4 vs 49.5 points).

The babies given extra docosahexaenoic acid/arachidonic acid also tested better on recognition memory, as evidenced by lower event-related potentials recorded by electroencephalography in response to a standard repeated visual image.

Summarizing, Drevon’s team writes, “Infants who received docosahexaenoic acid and arachidonic acid had better problem-solving skills and discriminated better between familiar and unfamiliar objects, compared with the control group. This function is essential for focusing attention, learning, and information processing.”

The researchers plan to examine the subjects in later childhood to determine whether the intervention has long-term effects on cognitive function, school performance, and rates of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

SOURCE: Pediatrics, June 2008.

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