Researchers add prebiotics to infant formula in an effort to improve learning, memory, brain development to match that of breastfed babies
10/21/2018 // Rhonda Johansson // Views

Breastfeeding your child is still the safest and healthiest way to nourish your baby. Scientists and nutritionists alike have observed the myriad of benefits that breastfeeding brings, from an increased bond with the baby to an infant that develops healthier than its baby formula-fed counterparts. That said, there are families that -- for one reason or another -- opt to give their children infant formula instead. These breastmilk substitutes are far and away more inferior from their naturally-derived cousins but they perform their intended purpose relatively well, or at least up to a certain point. This hasn’t stopped researchers though from trying to mimic the real thing.

Recently, a team from the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences concluded that infant formula supplemented with prebiotics can improve the memory and brain development in piglets. This is the first study that analyzed the specific effects prebiotics in baby formulas can have in the brain development of children. Other studies focused on prebiotics combined with other formula components. Authors of the study, which included Ryan Dilger, associate professor at the university, say that their dietary supplementation can “influence brain development” in pigs which could be similar in human children. Pigs, unlike rats and mice, share a similar digestive profile to that of humans and generally behave the same way as well.

As explained by lead author Stephen Fleming, a doctoral student in the Neuroscience Program at the university: “There hasn’t been a lot of work looking at the gut-brain axis in humans, but a lot of rodent work is showing those connections. This is taking it to an animal model that is a lot closer to human infants and asking if that connection still exists and if we can tease out possible mechanisms.”


As part of the study, the team fed two-day-old piglets with a cow’s milk-based infant formula supplemented with polydextrose (PDX) and galactooligosaccharide (GOS). These piglets were tested on learning, memory, and stress response when they were 25 days old. Their blood, brain, and intestinal tissues were likewise analyzed when they were 33 days old.

It was seen that piglets who were given the PDX-GOS infant formula displayed greater curiosity or “exploratory behavior” compared to those who were not fed the prebiotics. This was described as the engagement these pigs had with a brand-new toy. If piglets spent more time with the new toy, it was indicative that they preferred it and recognized it as something new. This preference for novel objects is seen to be similar to the natural curiosity that babies have. The authors further noted that this is a good sign of a healthy brain development.

Piglets given the enhanced baby formula likewise displayed higher levels of volatile fatty acid (VFA) which are metabolic end-products. Greater concentrations of VFA mean that the bacteria profile of the gut is healthy. There is also evidence that suggests that VFA influences mood and learning. (Related: Adding prebiotic, probiotic ingredients to infant formula helps boost babies' immunities.)

“We found that, yes, VFAs are absorbed in the blood of pigs that were fed PDX/GOS. And, yes, they do get into the brain,” enthused Fleming. “But when we looked at the relationship between these VFAs and the result of our behavior tests, there did not appear to be a clear connection.”

The team made a surprising discovery as well. They saw that supplementing piglets with PDX and GOS lowered the levels of serotonin in their brains. This shouldn’t cause alarm, the researchers say, as the decrease of serotonin did not seem to alter the piglets’ behavior in any way. The team hypothesized that prebiotics could manipulate the production of tryptophan which is the amino acid precursor to serotonin.

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