London, Feb 20 : A new study has shown that early nutrition has a long-term effect on a baby's developing brain.
The research team from Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children and the UCL Institute of Child Health found that pre-term infants fed enriched milk in their early weeks had a higher IQ in adulthood.
Researchers say the study is one of the first to show that the development of the brain can be influenced by early nutrition.
"It is not clear whether this just relates to preterm infants, who have very specific development issues," BBC quoted lead researcher Dr Elizabeth Isaacs, as saying.
"But obviously a next question would be if there are any wider implications, both for feeding beyond those first few weeks, and for babies who are born at term," she added.
The researchers followed a group of children born several weeks prematurely in the 1980s and who were at the time randomly assigned for four weeks either a high nutrient diet (formula milk with high fat and protein and micronutrient content), or formula or breast milk.
At 18 months and again at around the age of seven or eight, the children underwent developmental and IQ tests. At both stages the children who had been given the high-nutrient milk performed better. At age eight the verbal IQ skills of the boys in the high nutrient group were 12 points higher than the boys in the standard nutrient group.
Isaacs said it was possible that the high nutrient diet simply enabled the pre-term babies' developing brains to reach their full potential, or protected them from damage following the premature birth.
In the latest analysis, carried out when the babies were aged about 16, there was a wider gap between the girls fed the standard version and their enriched counterparts, of nine points, than there was between the boys, which had narrowed to seven.
But this time in addition to IQ tests, researchers also took scans of the children's brains in an attempt to elucidate these variations.
They found considerable differences between the two groups in the size of the caudate nucleus - a part of the brain associated with memory and learning.
They speculated that this could explain the differences seen, particularly given that there were no particularly striking variations in other key areas of the brain between the two groups.
The researchers say, "The fact that early nutrition may programme the development of specific brain structures is of fundamental biological importance. Although studies are beginning to appear that link aspects of current diet to brain function, the data presented here are among the first to show that the structure of the brain can be influenced by early nutrition in humans."
The study is published in Pediatric Research.