Sialic acid is an essential nutrient for brain development and cognition

Annu Rev Nutr. 2009:29:177-222. doi: 10.1146/annurev.nutr.28.061807.155515.


The rapid growth of infant brains places an exceptionally high demand on the supply of nutrients from the diet, particularly for preterm infants. Sialic acid (Sia) is an essential component of brain gangliosides and the polysialic acid (polySia) chains that modify neural cell adhesion molecules (NCAM). Sia levels are high in human breast milk, predominately as N-acetylneuraminic acid (Neu5Ac). In contrast, infant formulas contain a low level of Sia consisting of both Neu5Ac and N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc). Neu5Gc is implicated in some human inflammatory diseases. Brain gangliosides and polysialylated NCAM play crucial roles in cell-to-cell interactions, neuronal outgrowth, modifying synaptic connectivity, and memory formation. In piglets, a diet rich in Sia increases the level of brain Sia and the expression of two learning-related genes and enhances learning and memory. The purpose of this review is to summarize the evidence showing the importance of dietary Sia as an essential nutrient for brain development and cognition.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Cognition / drug effects
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Infant, Newborn / growth & development*
  • Learning / drug effects
  • Learning / physiology
  • Memory / drug effects
  • Memory / physiology
  • Milk, Human / chemistry
  • N-Acetylneuraminic Acid / administration & dosage*
  • N-Acetylneuraminic Acid / physiology*


  • N-Acetylneuraminic Acid