(Randomised trial of early diet in preterm babies and later intelligence quotient)
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In a paper in this week's BMJ, Professor Alan Lucas and colleagues from the Medical Research Council Childhood Nutrition Research Centre at the Institute of Child Health, demonstrate for the first time that early nutrition can significantly influence mental ability in later life.
In their study of 360 babies born prematurely (preterm), the authors found that those infants fed standard preterm formula milk, rather than a nutrient enriched formula, had reduced verbal IQ scores when they reached seven to eight years of age. This phenomenon was particularly evident in boys. Lucas et al also found, rather unexpectedly, that cerebral palsy was more prevalent in those infants fed the standard formula milk. They stress that under nutrition does not seem to be the cause of this condition, but that it may prevent the brain compensating for an adverse event (such as a period of inadequate oxygen supply) which can cause cerebral palsy.
Their study is the first formal trial of its size to be undertaken in the developed world. Previous studies of this kind have either been undertaken with rodents, for which the results are not necessarily meaningful for humans, or with people in the developing world, where social circumstances may have confounded results.
Lucas et al conclude that their study provides the most compelling data in humans to date, that early nutrition during a brief period of a child's development, can have lifetime effects on health and performance. They therefore stress that avoiding under nutrition in sick preterm infants seems to be important in optimising the development of the human brain.