Skip to content

Lipid Droplets in Infant Formula Improve Child Neurodevelopment

    Preparation of mixture baby feeding on wooden background top view. Demonstrates new way of making formula mimic human milk by altering lipid droplets.

    Written by: Brittany T. Truong, Ph.D. | Issue # 119 | 2024

    • Breastfeeding is positively associated with infant and child neurocognitive development.
    • Human breast milk and infant formula differ in their composition of milk lipids and in the structure of milk lipid globules. 
    • An experimental infant formula containing large lipid droplets coated with milk phospholipids, similar to what is found in human milk, positively affects child neurocognitive development. 

    Human breast milk has been positively associated with improving the neurodevelopment and function of children [1]. Breastmilk is considered the gold standard for infant nutrition; however, some parents are unable to breastfeed and must rely on infant formula. 

    Although it is a nutritious and effective substitute, infant formula does not perfectly mimic human milk. Infant formula is missing key sugars, lipids, and immune cells [2]. Some startup companies have made first attempts to produce human milk in a laboratory setting

    In a new clinical trial, published in Frontiers in Nutrition, researchers developed an infant formula that more closely mimics human milk by changing the size and structure of the lipid droplets in the new formula. They show that doing so can improve child neurocognitive development [3]. 

    Lidewij Schipper, a lead researcher on the study and a Principal Scientist in Nutrition and Brain Development at Danone Nutricia Research, says the new infant formula is “the first of its kind.”

    Human milk is produced in the mammary glands and contains bioactive elements such as dietary lipids. These lipids are organized into large droplets and are surrounded by a three-layered membrane called the milk fat globule membrane (MFGM). In contrast, infant formula contains small lipid droplets and no membrane, due to disruptions to the lipids during manufacturing [4]. 

    “The size and the membrane surrounding the lipid droplets affect how lipids from milk are digested and absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract,” says Schipper. “This may contribute to the growth and development of babies.”

    The researchers tested the new infant formula containing large lipid droplets that were surrounded by a single layer of milk phospholipids, which mimicked the outside layer of human milk fat globule membranes. They gave infants either standard or the new infant formula until 17 weeks of age during a random, double-blind trial. Breastfed babies were used as a reference [3].

    After 4 months, the scientists measured the babies’ blood lipid levels, specifically omega-3 and omega-6 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFAs) [3]. “LCPUFAs are critical for brain growth and development,” Schipper says. “They can be found as structural components in neuronal cell membranes, and they have essential functional roles, for instance, contributing to neurotransmission.” Omega-3 LCPUFAs are particularly critical for supporting healthy neurodevelopment [5].

    The researchers found that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the blood was significantly higher in the standard formula group compared to the new formula and breastfed groups [3]. In other words, omega-3 levels were relatively lower in the standard formula group and relatively higher in the new formula and breastfed groups. This suggests that the large lipid droplets with the milk phospholipid membrane in the new infant formula may have improved the bioavailability for omega-3 LCPUFAs uptake in the baby’s brain.  

    The researchers then tested neurocognitive development every year from 3–5 years of age. They found that at 5 years old, children who were given the new formula showed better cognitive performance than those given standard formula. In fact, their cognitive function was closer to the breastfed group. According to Schipper, these results were not surprising, considering that the new formula was more like human milk. The relatively higher omega-3 LCPUFA levels observed with the new infant formula may have contributed to the differences in cognitive function [3].

    “Now that we have discovered that the size of lipid droplets and the presence of a membrane surrounding the lipid droplets in infant formula are functionally relevant,” says Schipper, “we can use this knowledge to the benefit of infants who receive infant formula.”

    The research group has additional ongoing clinical trials to confirm the benefits of this new infant formula. They are interested in conducting more long-term studies and analyzing the effects of the new formula on at-risk populations. In the future, they also plan to study the mechanisms underlying how the lipids affect neurocognitive development. 

    “Our expertise lies in the field of human milk research, which we’ve been studying for the past 50 years,” Schipper says. “We will keep conducting research and innovating because we believe in the power of nutrition to support babies’ growth and development.” 

    References

    1. Belfort MB, Rifas-Shiman SL, Kleinman KP, Guthrie LB, Bellinger DC, Taveras EM, et al. Infant feeding and childhood cognition at ages 3 and 7 years: Effects of breastfeeding duration and exclusivity. JAMA Pediatr. 2013;167(9):836–44.
    2. Martin CR, Ling PR, Blackburn GL. Review of infant feeding: Key features of breast milk and infant formula. Nutrients. 2016;8(5):1–11.
    3. Schipper L, Bartke N, Marintcheva-Petrova M, Schoen S, Vandenplas Y, Hokken-Koelega ACS. Infant formula containing large, milk phospholipid-coated lipid droplets and dairy lipids affects cognitive performance at school age. Front Nutr. 2023;10:1–11.
    4. Gallier S, Acton D, Garg M, Singh H. Natural and processed milk and oil body emulsions: Bioavailability, bioaccessibility and functionality. Food Struct. 2017;13:13–23.
    5. Colombo J, Carlson SE, Cheatham CL, Shaddy DJ, Kerling EH, Thodosoff JM, et al. Long-term effects of lcpufa supplementation on childhood cognitive outcomes. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013;98(2):403–12.