Breastfeeding has been widely recommended by organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC because of the health benefits to babies. Not only does breast milk seem to help babies’ disease resistance, it has also been correlated with higher IQs and even higher test scores. But why is breast milk a “brain food”? Scientists have a variety of theories: for one, brains are made up of fats, and breast milk contains lots of DHA omega-3 fatty acids. Breastfeeding is also soothing to the infant, which reduces stress hormones that might disrupt or slow brain development. This week, a new study out of PLoS One has found some additional brain boosters: S100B, BDNF, and GDNF.
The S100B protein, found in high levels in breast milk, is linked to brain maturation and development.
The protein BDNF (Brain-Developing Neurotrophic Factor), called “Miracle-Gro for the brain” by one scientist, helps existing neurons thrive and stimulates the growth of new neurons in various areas of the brain. It’s also tied to the development of long-term memory.
GDNF is short for Glial cell-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, and it’s a small but punchy protein: it helps very specific neurons develop, AND keeps them running. It’s so powerful that in adults, it’s been pegged as a possible treatment for degenerative neurological diseases like Parkinson’s.
Together, the researchers say, these chemicals may “exert a stimulating effect on neurodevelopment during breastfeeding or long afterward” and that the substances have been shown to be “critical” in “neuronal growth, development, protection, and repair.”
With an increasing list of benefits, it’s no wonder human breast milk is a hot commodity.