NEW YORK - In a study of six-year-olds, researchers found no IQ differences between kids who were fed formula supplemented with long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) as infants and those who got regular formula, but the PUFA kids were notably faster at picture-matching games.
"Babies need LC-PUFAs for brain growth and development, but studies such as ours show that the benefits persist after infancy and can affect later development," lead author Dr. Peter Willatts of the University of Dundee in the UK told Reuters Health.
Fatty acids are important components of nerve cell membranes and are found naturally in breastmilk. They are thought to play an important role in brain development, but are not included in many infant formulas.
In previous studies, babies on PUFA formula tended to learn faster and be more attentive, and the evidence for benefits in older kids is growing, Willatts said by email.
For his team's new study, infants in several European countries were randomly divided into three groups of 70 for four months: one group was given formula containing the fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA), one was given regular formula and a third was breastfed.
The researchers later measured the children's intelligence, attention control and mental processing speed.
The two formula groups had the same average IQ scores, but the PUFA group processed information faster in a picture-matching game.
Kids in the PUFA group were quickest to match pictures when they got it right, followed by the breastfed group and then the regular formula group, according to the results published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
"The PUFA children were 20 per cent faster at solving the problems," than the other formula group, Willatts said. "You probably wouldn't notice this when watching them complete the tests, but the fact that there is an improvement which can be measured is a very important finding."
Researchers can't say for certain that faster processing would affect all areas of learning in later life, but the measure is related to better performance on reading and math, he said.
"Long term cognitive benefits of including DHA and ARA (two important PUFAs) in infant formula have now been shown in two studies that differ in many aspects of design and were conducted in different parts of the world," said Susan Carlson, a nutritionist at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, who recently authored a similar study in the same journal.
Carlson's study in Kansas and Missouri did find a difference in IQ between formula groups at six years of age, but, she said, that may be because Carlson gave infants higher percentages of important PUFAs and continued the supplementation for the first 12 months of life, versus four months in European study.
In most studies, breastfed kids score on average three to five points higher on IQ tests than formula babies, regardless of PUFAs they consume, which Willatts said can't easily be explained. The difference may result from other factors, such as the fact that mothers who breastfeed are more often highly educated with higher incomes than mothers who do not.
Both Willatts and Carlson strongly recommend that parents who choose not to breastfeed choose PUFA formulas, which isn't difficult to do in the US and Europe, they said.
"Almost all formulas now contain PUFAs, although the amount varies," Willatts said of UK brands. In some countries there are cheaper formulas available without PUFAs, he said.
Carlson said she is not aware of any formulas in the US that do not contain the fatty acids, but some mothers still make their own formulas with evaporated milk, corn syrup and water, which would not contain PUFAs.