In England, about one in ten babies are born prematurely. It has recently been published that premature babies there who have been given high protein food grow up to be more intelligent. Scientists from Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children and the UCL Institute of Child Health followed a group of 76 children born several weeks early in the 1980's and then studied these developing children for many years.
After their birth, babies were randomly assigned either a high nutrient milk or a standard formula diet that most infants receive. In later years, they found that the preterm babies they had been studying (who were fed enriched formula milk in their first weeks) consistently outperformed other premature babies in IQ tests.
This has led to considerable discussion among scientists about the incredible value of early nutrition in infants. In this case, by the time they reached 15 years of age, the children who had been fed on the protein-rich diet had an average verbal IQ score about eight points higher than those on normal formula or breast milk. (In this hospital system, all premature babies are now fed the equivalent of the high-nutrient diet).
Principal author, Dr Elizabeth Isaacs, said "the structure of the human brain can be influenced by early nutrition." A close examination of the brains of those studied found that those who had been on the nutrient-rich diet tended to have a bigger caudate nucleus - a part of the brain linked to higher intelligence levels.
"The fact that early nutrition may program the development of specific brain structures is of fundamental biological importance," Dr Isaacs and her co-authors concluded.
The study is published in the March edition of the British journal, Paediatric Research.