Breast milk substitute enhances IQ and executive function in children

summary: Researchers have discovered a complex element in milk that can provide long-term cognitive benefits to children when added to infant formula.

The study found that formula supplementing with milk fat globulin membrane (MFGM) and lactoferrin for a year raised children’s IQs by 5 points at age 5 and a half. The effect was more evident in the speed of children’s processing of information and visual-spatial skills.

This breakthrough offers a promising alternative for families facing breastfeeding challenges.

Key facts:

  • The study used a formula enriched with milk fat globule membrane (MFGM) and lactoferrin, components naturally present in mammalian milk, but often removed in commercial infant formula.
  • Children who were fed this rich formula had a 5-point increase in IQ and showed significant improvement in executive function when tested at 5 1/2 years of age.
  • The benefits of enriched formula persist long after breastfeeding has ended, supporting the idea that early feeding has a long-term effect on brain development.

source: University of Kansas

Breast milk is widely known to be the most beneficial nutrition for infants, but many families face medical or logistical challenges with breastfeeding. In the United States, only 45% of babies continue exclusive breastfeeding at 3 months, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

For decades, researchers have sought to create a viable supplement or alternative to breast milk to give babies the best start in healthy development. New research from the University of Kansas has shown how a complex milk component that can be added to infant formula confers long-term cognitive benefits, including measures of intelligence and executive function in children.

This indicates a happy child.
When milk-based infant formula is manufactured, the membrane is usually removed during processing. Credit: Neuroscience News

Research by John Colombo, director and investigator of the KU Life Span Institute, along with colleagues at Mead Johnson Nutrition and in Shanghai, China, adds to growing scientific support for the importance of components found in the milk fat globule membrane (MFGM) in early humans. development.

The study published in Journal of Pediatricsshowed that feeding infants formula supplemented with MFGM and lactoferrin for 12 months raised IQ by 5 points at 5 1/2 years of age.

The effects were most pronounced in tests of the children’s information processing speed and visual-spatial skills. Significant differences were also seen in the children’s performance on tests of executive function, which are complex skills that involve learning of rules and inhibition.

All forms of mammalian milk contain large, membrane-enclosed fat globules that are made up of a variety of nutrients important for human nutrition and brain development, Colombo said. When milk-based infant formula is manufactured, the membrane is usually removed during processing.

“No one thought much of this membrane, until chemical analyzes showed that it was remarkably complex and full of components that likely contribute to health and brain development,” Colombo said.

The 2023 study was a follow-up to a study that Colombo also co-authored with colleagues in Shanghai, China, and was published in the journal Journal of Pediatrics in 2019. That study showed that infants fed formula containing MFGM and added bovine lactoferrin had higher scores on tests of neurodevelopment during the first year and on some aspects of language at 18 months of age.

Colombo said the global nutrition research community has been looking at MFGM for about a decade. Because membrane is made up of several different components, it is not known if one component is responsible for these benefits, or if the whole group of nutrients work together to improve brain development and behaviour.

These benefits were seen in children long after they ended formula feeding at 12 months of age.

“This is consistent with the idea that early exposure to these food components contributes to long-term brain structure and function,” said Colombo, who has spent most of his career researching the importance of early experience in shaping later development.

About neurodevelopmental research news

author: Jane Humphrey
source: University of Kansas
communication: Jane Humphrey – University of Kansas
picture: Image credited to Neuroscience News

Original search: Open access.
Improvement of neurodevelopmental outcomes at 5.5 years of age in children who received lipid spherules from cow’s milk and lactoferrin in infant formula during 12 months: a randomized controlled trial.Written by John Colombo et al. Journal of Pediatrics

a summary

Improvement of neurodevelopmental outcomes at 5.5 years of age in children who received lipid spherules from cow’s milk and lactoferrin in infant formula during 12 months: a randomized controlled trial.


To assess neurodevelopmental outcomes at 5.5 years of age in children previously randomized to a cow’s milk-based infant formula (control group) or a similar formula (LMF + lactoferrin) with additional sources of BLF and bovine lactoferrin Through 12 months of age.


Children who completed the Nutrition Study were invited to participate in Follow-up Assessments: Cognitive Development Across Multiple Domains (Primary Outcome; Wechsler Preschool & Primary Scale of Intelligence, 4y ed.), Inhibitory Control/Rule Learning (Stroop Task), Resilience/Rule Learning (Dimensional Change Card Sorting), and Behavior/Emotion (Child Behavior Checklist).


Of the 292 eligible participants (control: 148, MFA + lactoferrin: 144), 116 were enrolled and completed assessments (control: 59, MFA + LF: 57). There were no group demographic differences except for household income (milk fat globule membrane + lactoferrin significantly higher). Wechsler Preschool and Primary Intelligence Scale, 4y Release composite scores (mean ± standard error) for visuospatial (100.6 ± 1.7 vs. 95.3 ± 1.7; s = .027), processing speed (107.1 ± 1.4 vs. 100.0 ± 1.4; s <.001), and full-scale IQ (98.7±1.4 vs. 93.5±1.5; s = .012) was significantly higher for milk lipid profile + lactoferrin versus control, even after controlling for demographic/socioeconomic factors. Stroop task scores were significantly higher in milk fat globule membrane + lactoferrin versus control (s <.001). Higher Dimensional Change Card Sorting Degrees (s = .013) in the border stage (more complex/difficult), and more children passed the border stage (32% vs. 12%; s = .039) for milk fat spherical membrane versus control. No group differences were detected in the Child Behavior Checklist score.


Children who received infant formula up to 12 months of age with the addition of BMF and bovine lactoferrin versus standard formula showed improved cognitive outcomes in multiple domains at 5.5 years of age, including measures of intelligence and executive function.

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