KU researchers find link between baby formula nutrient and brain development

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - It is formula that could make your baby smarter and healthier. There are many unknowns. However, some local researchers found something surprising.

On banners hanging every 20 feet, they advertise breakthroughs outside KU Med Center. Inside, down a hallway where signs point toward infant behavior studies, researchers see something life-changing.

"I was pretty skeptical," said John Colombo, director of the KU Life Span Institute.

For 28 years, Colombo has studied infant brain function.

"I was skeptical that a single nutrient like this could have a big effect like this," Colombo said.

He is referring to an Omega 3 fatty acid known as DHA. It is used in some baby formulas and can also be found in the breast milk of mothers that consume the right quantities of Omega 3. For years, rumor suggested DHA in formula boosts infant brain development.

With unclear evidence in scientific journals, Colombo partnered with a nutritional expert, Susan Carlson, at KU Medical Center. For one year, they fed three groups of infants formula with different levels of DHA. A fourth group did not consume DHA.

Researcher then tested each infant's brain response. Each sat in front of monitors which displayed pictures. Researchers watched closely to see how long each baby starred at pictures on screen.

"We found that babies that received any level of DHA, starting at .3%, showed improved attention," Colombo said.

They also found a surprise. When babies stared at images for at least five seconds, heart rate dropped.

"If their heart rate drops while they're looking at pictures, that's a clear indication they are paying attention," Colombo said.

That discovery potentially offers significant benefit.

"Babies with this supplement were better able to pay attention," Colombo said. "When you pay attention, you learn and it gives you an advantage in learning over time."

However, there are unknowns, especially with changes in infant heart rate.

"We don't know the long term affects of that, so we are following up with those babies," Colombo said.

For now, they are calling it breakthrough that could lead to smarter, healthier children.

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