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Nutrition for neurons: The role of breast milk in shaping our brains

Breast milk, often hailed as the “liquid gold” of nutrition for newborns, has a number of amazing components to help babies grow and develop. 

In a new study from Tufts University, researchers have identified a specific sugar molecule present in human breast milk that may be pivotal to both the growth of young brains and the aging ones. The research offers insights that could potentially revolutionize infant nutrition and adult brain health.

Focus of the study

The research was conducted at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University. The experts pinpointed a micronutrient in human breast milk known as myo-inositol, demonstrating its significant positive effects on the developing brains of infants. 

This finding deepens our understanding of the connection between diet and brain health and has promising implications for enhancing infant formulas in scenarios where breastfeeding may not be an option.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study establishes the key role of this micronutrient in early life. The research also sets the stage for exploring how myo-inositol might function in the brain throughout aging.

Fascinating insights 

One of the most compelling aspects of the research was the discovery that myo-inositol is most abundantly found in human breast milk during the initial months of lactation. 

This is a critical phase when the infant’s brain is rapidly forming neuronal connections known as synapses. Interestingly, the researchers found this to be consistent across mothers from various ethnic backgrounds and geographic locations. 

By profiling and comparing milk samples from Mexico City, Shanghai, and Cincinnati, the researchers found a global uniformity in the presence of myo-inositol.

Human experiences shape the brain

Thomas Biederer is the senior scientist on the Neuroscience and Aging Team at the HNRCA, senior author on the study, and faculty member at the Yale School of Medicine. He emphasizes the fascinating complexity of human experiences in shaping brain development. 

“Forming and refining brain connectivity from birth is guided by genetic and environmental forces as well as by human experiences,” said Biederer. He further explores the idea that diet, as one of the environmental forces, provides a rich field for study. 

Biederer notes the particular sensitivity of the brain to dietary factors during infancy, given the more permeable nature of the blood-brain barrier. 

“As a neuroscientist, it’s intriguing to me how profound the effects of micronutrients are on the brain,” says Biederer. “It’s also amazing how complex and rich human breast milk is, and I now think it is conceivable that its composition is dynamically changing to support different stages of infant brain development.”

Universal role in brain development

The uniform presence of myo-inositol across different geographic locations underscores its universal role in human brain development. But its significance does not end with infancy. 

The researchers also uncovered connections between brain inositol levels and several adult mental health conditions, such as major depressive disorders, bipolar disease, schizophrenia, Down’s syndrome, and Alzheimer’s disease. 

These findings open doors to many pressing questions about the cause-and-effect relationship between inositol levels and these diseases, as well as the optimal levels of myo-inositol for brain health throughout life.

Biederer cautions against immediate changes to adult diets, stating that it’s too soon to recommend an increase in myo-inositol consumption, although he acknowledges the potential benefits for infant formulas. 

“The current research does indicate that for circumstances where breastfeeding is not possible, it may be beneficial to increase the levels of myo-inositol in infant formula,” he says.

Many questions remain

Several questions still need answers:

Is the low level of inositol in individuals with depression or bipolar disorder a causative factor for these conditions, or could it be a side effect of the medications used in their treatment? 

What does the presence of abnormally high levels of myo-inositol in people with Down’s syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease suggest? Could excessive myo-inositol be harmful? And perhaps most intriguingly, what is the “ideal” level of myo-inositol necessary for optimal brain health at different life stages?

Biederer and his team at the HNRCA are presently working on answering these questions. Their research is now geared towards understanding how micronutrients like myo-inositol might influence cells and connectivity in the aging brain. The goal is to shed light on how dietary factors interact with age-related brain anomalies.

The study received support from Reckitt Benckiser / Mead Johnson Nutrition and a generous contribution from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation. The researchers maintain that the findings and interpretations are solely their own and do not represent the official views of the funders.

More about breast milk

Breast milk is a fascinating and complex substance that plays a crucial role in infant development. Here’s a deeper look into its characteristics, components, and benefits:


Breast milk contains the perfect balance of nutrients that an infant needs for growth and development. This includes proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and immune-boosting substances. Its composition changes during different stages of lactation, and even within a single feeding session, to meet the infant’s changing needs.


This is the thick and yellowish milk produced in the first few days after birth. It’s rich in antibodies and immune cells that provide the baby’s first line of defense against infections.

Transitional milk

As the name suggests, transitional milk bridges the gap between colostrum and mature milk, gradually increasing in volume and fat content.

Mature milk

Mature milk is rich in fats, lactose, water-soluble vitamins, and more than 200 different types of proteins that help with digestion and provide antibodies.

Health benefits for infants

Breast milk is often referred to as the “gold standard” for infant nutrition, and for good reasons:

Nutritional content

It provides all the essential nutrients required for the first six months of life.

Immune Support

It contains antibodies and immune cells that protect against various infections and diseases.


The proteins and fats in breast milk are easier for infants to digest compared to cow’s milk or formula.

Brain development

As seen in the Tufts University study, breast milk contains specific nutrients like myo-inositol that promote brain development.

Emotional bonding

Breastfeeding fosters a close emotional connection between the mother and baby.

Health benefits for mothers

Breastfeeding also offers benefits for mothers:

Weight loss

It helps in losing pregnancy weight as it burns extra calories.

Cancer protection 

Some studies suggest that breastfeeding may reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

Convenience and cost-effectiveness

Breast milk is readily available and doesn’t incur additional costs like formula feeding.

Challenges and alternatives

While breastfeeding is highly beneficial, it might not be possible for every mother due to medical, personal, or professional reasons. In such cases, infant formulas are available as an alternative. 

Although they do not replicate the complexity of breast milk, ongoing research, like the study at Tufts University, is aimed at enhancing the nutritional content of formulas to come closer to the benefits offered by breast milk.


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