Specific HMOs linked to infant brain development: Study

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

© warrengoldswain / Getty Images
© warrengoldswain / Getty Images

Related tags HMO HMOs Infant formula cognitive development Infant nutrition Prebiotics 2´-fucosyllactose

Individual human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) may play critical roles in the maturation of gray matter in an infant brain, showing that inclusion of specific HMOs in infant formula could be beneficial, says a new study.

Data published in Nutrients​ indicated that 2´-fucosyllactose (2´FL), 3-fucosyllactose (3FL), and 3′-sialyllactose (3′SL) also played a role in developing white matter in the brains of babies.

“Although 2′FL has been introduced as an ingredient in commercial formula for term infants, our findings suggest that the addition of 3FL and 3′SL could also be beneficial, given their distinct yet complementary influences on early brain tissue organization,”​ wrote scientists from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Colorado Boulder.


HMOs are unique carbohydrates that make up about 10% of the dry weight of mother’s milk. HMOs are not easily digested, so experts postulate that their purpose is to jump-start the infant’s microbiome.

There are over 150 different HMOs. 2’FL is the most abundant and is therefore the most studied. It is already commercially available from a number of different suppliers.

A study published in Gut​ (He et al., 2016, Vol. 65, pp. 33–46) by scientists from Harvard Medical School showed that 2’FL could reduce the inflammatory response to pathogenic bacteria. In addition, a 2017 paper in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition​ (Puccio et al., Vol. 64, pp. 624–631) reported that infants fed formula with 2′FL and lacto-N-neotetraose (LNnT), another HMO, had lower levels of bronchitis and required fewer antibiotics.

Results of a study published in the Journal of Nutrition​ in 2016 by scientists at Abbott Nutrition found that infants fed a formula with 2’FL had levels of inflammatory cytokines similar to those observed for breast feeding, and significantly lower than those observed for infants fed a control formula containing no 2’FL. 

In terms of cognitive health and the developing infant brain, the research team behind the new study previously reported that higher exposure to 2′FL at one month of age was linked to better cognitive development at two years of age (PLoS ONE​). Furthermore, a 2021 paper in the Journal of Nutrition & Food Sciences​ indicated that 2’FL) and 6´-sialyllactose (6’SL) were positively correlated with motor scores at 6 and 18 months of age.

Study details

The new study is reported to be the first to report a link between individual HMOs with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) indices of infant brain development.

Twenty mother–infant pairs were recruited at one-month post-birth and the mother’s breastmilk was assessed for levels of 2′FL, 3FL, 3′SL, and 6′SL.

Overall, the researchers found that 2′FL, 3FL, and 3′SL, but not 6′SL, were associated with measures of brain tissue organization and regional cerebral blood flow on the one-month-old infants.

“Our data show that individual HMO exposures were differentially associated with MRI indices of newborn brain tissue organization and rCBF, which reflect the structural and metabolic characteristics that foster future cognitive and behavioral functions,” ​they wrote.

“Our findings highlighted specific roles of 2′FL, 3FL, and 3′SL in promoting the maturation of the cortical gray matter and the developing white matter, which in turn may guide recommendations for the nutritional care of infants and supplementation strategies that support optimal brain development.”

Source: Nutrients
2022, 14​(18), 3820; doi: 10.3390/nu14183820
“Associations of Human Milk Oligosaccharides with Infant Brain Tissue Organization and Regional Blood Flow at 1 Month of Age”
Authors: P.K. Berger et al.


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