While breast milk is considered the best, for mothers for whom breastfeeding is difficult or impossible adding prebiotics to the formula milk could enhance memory and learning in babies, researchers suggest.
Among other benefits, breast milk contains natural sources of prebiotics: small, indigestible fibre molecules that promote the growth of good bacteria in the baby’s gut, which is not present in the standard formula milk.
The study, conducted on piglets showed that prebiotics included in the infant formula enhanced memory and exploratory behaviour in babies.
“When we provide prebiotics in formula, our results confirm that we can not only benefit gut health, which is known, but we can also influence brain development,” said Ryan Dilger, Associate Professor at the University of Illinois.
“We can actually change the way piglets learn and remember by influencing bacteria in the colon,” Dilger added.
In the study, reported in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience, starting on the second day of life, piglets were given a cow’s milk-based infant formula supplemented with polydextrose (PDX), a synthetic carbohydrate with prebiotic activity, and galactooligosaccharide (GOS), a naturally occurring prebiotic.
Piglets are widely considered a more informative model for human infants than mice and rats, their digestive systems, behavioural responses, and brain development are remarkably similar to human infants.
Pigs fed with the prebiotic supplements spent more time playing with new objects, on a learning and memory test, than pigs who did not receive the supplements.
The preference for novel objects, an indication of natural curiosity, is a sign of healthy brain development and points towards positive development of learning and memory, the researchers said.