Edinburgh Imaging

02 Oct 18. Theirworld EBC

A study led by Professor James Boardman (Director of the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory at the University of Edinburgh) has shown that premature babies show better brain development when fed breast milk rather than formula.

Premature birth has been linked to increased possibility of problems with learning and memory later in life which may be associated with alterations in brain development as previous studies have linked premature birth with changes in white matter.

The team of researchers studied MRI brain scans from 47 babies, which were done at the Edinburgh Imaging Facility QMRI, from a study group known as the Theirworld Edinburgh Birth Cohort. The babies had been born before 33 weeks gestation and scans took place when they reached term-equivalent age, an average of 40 weeks from conception. The team also collected information about how the infants had been fed while in intensive care – either formula milk or breast milk from either the mother or a donor.

It was found that babies who exclusively received breast milk for the last three-quarters of the days they spent in hospital showed improved brain connectivity compared with others. The effects were greatest in babies who were fed breast milk for a greater proportion of their time spent in intensive care.


Our findings suggest that brain development in the weeks after preterm birth is improved in babies who receive greater amounts of breast milk. This study highlights the need for more research to understand the role of early life nutrition for improving long-term outcomes for pre-term babies. Mothers of pre-term babies should be supported to provide breast milk while their baby is in neonatal care – if they are able to and if their baby is well enough to receive milk – because this may give their children the best chance of healthy brain development.

Professor James BoardmanPersonal Chair of Neonatal Medicine