Does breastfeeding alter early brain development? The prevailing consensus from large epidemiological studies posits that early exclusive breastfeeding is associated with improved measures of IQ and cognitive functioning in later childhood and adolescence. Prior morphometric brain imaging studies support these findings, revealing increased white matter and sub-cortical gray matter volume, and parietal lobe cortical thickness, associated with IQ, in adolescents who were breastfed as infants compared to those who were exclusively formula-fed. Yet it remains unknown when these structural differences first manifest and when developmental differences that predict later performance improvements can be detected. In this study, we used quiet magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to compare measures of white matter microstructure (mcDESPOT measures of myelin water fraction) in 133 healthy children from 10 months through 4 years of age, who were either exclusively breastfed a minimum of 3 months; exclusively formula-fed; or received a mixture of breast milk and formula. We also examined the relationship between breastfeeding duration and white matter microstructure. Breastfed children exhibited increased white matter development in later maturing frontal and association brain regions. Positive relationships between white matter microstructure and breastfeeding duration are also exhibited in several brain regions, that are anatomically consistent with observed improvements in cognitive and behavioral performance measures. While the mechanisms underlying these structural differences remains unclear, our findings provide new insight into the earliest developmental advantages associated with breastfeeding, and support the hypothesis that breast milk constituents promote healthy neural growth and white matter development.
Keywords: Brain development; Breastfeeding; Infant imaging; Longitudinal Relaxation Time; MCR; MRI; MWF; Magnetic Resonance Imaging; Magnetic resonance imaging; Multicomponent Relaxometry; Myelin; Myelin Water Fraction; Myelin maturation; Myelin water fraction; T1; T2; Transverse Relation Time; VF(M); White matter development; mcDESPOT Derived Myelin Water Fraction.
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