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Posts Tagged ‘Science’

Those who know me in my personal life know that I am a big fan and proponent of exclusive and extended breastfeeding. When I had my first child, I was personally dedicated to making breastfeeding a success, regardless of the effort involved. After 3 months of nearly complete torture, we managed to get a solid breastfeeding relationship launched, and I was able to continue for multiple years.

These days, I am on baby number two and finding the experience to be much easier the second time around. I feel very fortunate in this. The process finally seems “natural.” I know that many women do not find breastfeeding to be easy and natural, but the benefits of sticking it out can be substantial.

Today, I came across a fascinating article on a new study highlighting the benefits of breastfeeding on infant brain development. Check out the press release here.

Researchers took infants and divided them into groups based on their primary food source – exclusive breastfeeding, exclusive formula feeding, and combined breastfeeding and formula feeding.  The infants were given an MRI to evaluate structural and functional differences in their brains.

Results suggested that infants who were exclusively breastfed had more growth in areas of their brain involved in language, emotional functioning, and general cognition.  They also had increased myelination compared to the other groups.  Larger amounts of myelin help the brain process information more quickly and efficiently.

As a science nerd and breastfeeding fan, this study really validates all the frustration and effort I (and countless other women) have put into making breastfeeding a success.  There is also some evidence in the study that including some breastfeeding gives kids an edge, although not as strong as exclusively breastfeeding.

Of course, as always, it is important to realize that correlation does not necessarily imply causation.  Other factors may be responsible for the association.  And certainly, giving your child formula does not condemn them to a life of being dull and stunted in their growth. In all honesty, I was exclusively formula fed as a baby in the days before DHA was actively added to formulas, and I managed to get a Ph.D. as an adult.  So many other things influence general cognitive abilities that one choice about feeding as an infant is not a complete determinant of later ability.

But, for those women who are struggling with frustration and self-doubt in their breastfeeding relationship – this study suggests that it is worthwhile to stick it out as much as you can.

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I came across this article today on a new study being released next month that demonstrates a link between delayed use of prenatal vitamins and later risk of autism diagnosis.  Here is a link to the abstract for the article, set to appear in the journal Epidemiology:

http://journals.lww.com/epidem/Abstract/publishahead/Prenatal_Vitamins,_One_carbon_Metabolism_Gene.99561.aspx

This is an interesting direction for autism research.  Given the popularity of vitamin supplements and injections as a homeopathic treatment for autism, this study makes some interesting strides in attempting to understand what, if any, link exists between vitamin use and autism.

Researchers selected a sample of children diagnosed with autism between the ages of 2 and 5 and then selected a control population of same-aged children selected to match the original sample on certain demographic characteristics.  Mothers were asked to recall and report on their use of vitamins and other substances prenatally.  Researchers then used a logistic regression analysis to predict the odds of having an autism diagnosis based on mother’s report of her prenatal vitamin use and on genetic data.

Results from the study suggest that among women who carry certain genes associated with increased autism risk, delaying use of prenatal vitamins for as little as a month significantly increased the odds that their child developed autism.  This is an interesting finding given that most of us are aware of the importance of taking prenatal supplements containing folic acid to promote fetal neural development and prevent diseases like spina bifida.  Since the building blocks of the brain and nervous system begin to develop during that first month of gestation, it makes some sense to think that some of the nuances of development could have an impact on later development of autism.

There are several important caveats to keep in mind when thinking about this sort of study:

1. The findings rest heavily on the mothers’ ability to remember and accurately report on their prenatal vitamin use 2 to 5 years after the fact.  While some mothers may have a fabulous memory of their vitamin use, others may have difficulty remembering or may stretch the truth about their vitamin use to project a certain image of themselves.  These sorts of recall and report biases are problems that pervade most psychological research, but they are important to keep in mind.

2. While the results are statistically significant, the confidence intervals published in the study suggests that there was significant variation in the data.  In plainer English, this means that there was a lot of variety in the responses.  While there was a significant trend toward vitamin use predicting autism diagnosis, there were still some women who did not use vitamins and had a typically developing child while some women who religiously took their vitamins had a child with autism.

So, overall, this is a significant and interesting finding that is important to furthering our understanding of how to reduce risk for developing autism; however, further research is definitely needed to see if these results can be replicated in other samples to verify that this was not just a statistical anomaly.  Also, it would be interesting to see if there are certain vitamin deficiencies that are more associated with higher risk of autism than others.

On a separate note, though, I would encourage anyone to read these newspaper articles on scientific studies with a critical eye.  Scientific research is a long process and depends on multiple replications to establish fact.  Just because one study found a correlation does not mean that not taking vitamins at the beginning of your pregnancy caused your child’s autism.  It is only one piece of a much more complicated and incomplete picture of the development of autism.  The important take-away message is that, as always, taking prenatal vitamins as early as possible in the process is advisable.

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