Researchers Show Premature Infants Benefit From Formula Enriched With Fatty Acids

04/14/00    Portland, Ore.

Research Shows Enhanced Visual Development in Premature Infants

For years, researchers have studied the possible benefits of certain fatty acids naturally delivered to babies through breast milk. Now as part of a multicenter, international clinical trial, researchers at Oregon Health Sciences University have found that infant formula containing these fatty acids had a positive effect on visual and neurological development in premature infants. The findings will be presented Monday, April 17 at the Experimental Biology 2000 Conference in San Diego, Calif.

The research, funded by Abbott Laboratories, indicates that preterm infants fed a premature infant formula supplemented with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA) had improved visual development compared with preterm infants fed standard premature infant formula.

"This research is very encouraging. It showed that supplementation of the formula with DHA and AA, present in breast milk, can help meet the special nutritional needs of these preterm babies. Better visual development during this critical early period may reflect a more general improvement in brain development," said Martha Neuringer, Ph.D., research associate professor of medicine (endocrinology, diabetes and clinical nutrition) and ophthalmology in the School of Medicine at OHSU.

"This large study of almost 500 premature infants shows that feeding DHA- and AA- fortified formula to premature infants supports normal physical growth, and greatly improves vision and brain development," said William Connor, M.D., professor of medicine (endocrinology, diabetes and clinical nutrition) in the School of Medicine at OHSU. "We know the nutritional requirements of premature babies are special. Their brains are growing fast and they appear to benefit from DHA and AA, which are important to the development of vision and mental function. Our work supports the safety of infant formula fortified with these nutrients."

DHA and AA are known to be important components of cell membranes in the eyes and brain. Premature infants may not receive enough of these fatty acids because they miss out on the normal supply from the mother in the last trimester of pregnancy and many are unable to breastfeed. Currently, U.S. formulas provide the essential fatty acid precursors to these compounds, but not DHA and AA. Supplementation of DHA and AA in infant formulas currently is being reviewed by various regulatory bodies worldwide.

OHSU collaborated with other leading universities and hospitals in the United States, the United Kingdom and Chile in conducting this research. The study results were based on a double-blind, randomized trial involving 470 premature infants. When not receiving their mothers¹ own breast milk, preterm babies were fed either a formula with or without a unique blend of DHA and AA throughout their first year.

"Adding these compounds to premature infant formula is one important step in providing some of the advantages of breastfeeding to formula-fed premature infants," said Neuringer. "Fortified human milk is the best food for premature infants, but those who can¹t receive human milk should receive nutrition that comes as close as possible."