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Prebiotics in Infant Formula May Improve Memory, Learning and Alter Brain Function

Summary: A new study using piglets shows prebiotics used in baby formula can enhance memory and learning, as well as altering brain chemistry.

Source: University of Illinois ACES.

Nearly every American who has become a parent in the last decade has heard the slogan, “breast milk is best,” and has likely been encouraged to offer breast milk to newborns. Among other things, breast milk contains natural sources of prebiotics: small, indigestible fiber molecules that promote the growth of good bacteria in the baby’s gut. Yet for many families, breastfeeding is difficult or impossible. Fortunately, modern infant formulas are getting closer to the real thing with the help of University of Illinois researchers.

In a recent study from the Piglet Nutrition and Cognition Lab at U of I, scientists worked with piglets to show prebiotics included in infant formula can enhance memory and exploratory behavior.

“When we provide prebiotics in formula, our results confirm that we can not only benefit gut health, which is known, but we can also influence brain development,” says Ryan Dilger, associate professor in the Department of Animal Sciences, Division of Nutritional Sciences, and Neuroscience Program at U of I. “We can actually change the way piglets learn and remember by influencing bacteria in the colon.”

Piglets are widely considered a more informative model for human infants than mice and rats; their digestive systems, behavioral responses, and brain development are remarkably similar to human infants. Therefore, researchers are increasingly turning to piglets to test hypotheses in pre-clinical trials related to human health, especially in the context of gut microbes and brain development.

“There hasn’t been a lot of work looking at the gut-brain axis in humans, but a lot of rodent work is showing those connections. This is taking it to an animal model that is a lot closer to human infants and asking if that connection still exists and if we can tease out possible mechanisms,” says Stephen Fleming, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in the Neuroscience Program at U of I.

In early 2016, Dilger and his colleagues worked with piglets to show that a combination of innovative formula components, including prebiotics, may play a role in brain development and behavior. In their new study, the team concentrated solely on the effects of prebiotics.

Starting on the second day of life, piglets were given a cow’s milk-based infant formula supplemented with polydextrose (PDX), a synthetic carbohydrate with prebiotic activity, and galactooligosaccharide (GOS), a naturally occurring prebiotic. When the piglets were 25 days old, Fleming took them through several learning, memory, and stress tests. After 33 days, blood, brain, and intestinal tissues were collected for analysis.

The test for learning and memory gave piglets a chance to play with dog toys: one they’d seen before and one brand-new toy. If they spent more time with the new toy, that was an indication that the piglet recognized it as new and preferred it. This “novel object recognition” test improves on classic maze tests commonly used in rodent studies.

“If you’re trying to test for memory, this test is closer to what we’d do with an infant. After all, we don’t generally train infants on mazes,” Fleming says. “We know from previous research this test works for pigs, but this is the first published example of using it in a nutrition context.”

Pigs fed PDX and GOS spent more time playing with new objects than pigs who didn’t receive the prebiotic supplements. The preference for novel objects, an indication of natural curiosity, is a sign of healthy brain development and points towards positive development of learning and memory.

When prebiotics are working the way they should, good bacteria increase in abundance. One way to tell is by looking at metabolic end-products – volatile fatty acids (VFAs) – excreted by bacteria during digestion of prebiotic fibers.

“Volatile fatty acids are a global indicator for whether prebiotics had an effect on the overall population of bacteria. For example, we might want to see an increase in Lactobacillus and other beneficial bacteria that produce butyrate,” Dilger explains. Volatile fatty acid (VFA) concentrations in the colon, blood, and brain were changed in pigs receiving PDX and GOS compared with control pigs.

Recent evidence suggests that bacterial VFAs could be getting into the blood and traveling to the brain, where they could potentially affect mood and behavior.

“We found that, yes, VFAs are absorbed in the blood of pigs that were fed PDX/GOS. And, yes, they do get into the brain,” Fleming explains. “But when we looked at the relationship between these VFAs and the results of our behavior tests, there did not appear to be a clear connection.”

Image shows a baby drinking from a bottle.

When prebiotics are working the way they should, good bacteria increase in abundance. One way to tell is by looking at metabolic end-products – volatile fatty acids (VFAs) – excreted by bacteria during digestion of prebiotic fibers. NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.

Another surprise was a decrease in serotonin in brains of pigs fed the prebiotic. “When you hear less serotonin, there’s an immediate reaction to say, ‘Well, that’s bad,'” Fleming says. Not necessarily; those pigs didn’t show greater anxiety than control pigs during a stress test or poorer performance when given a learning and memory test. The researchers hypothesize that the prebiotics may alter levels of tryptophan, serotonin’s amino acid precursor, but it’s too early to say.

Although more work is needed to tackle remaining questions, the study adds to the growing body of research suggesting a strong and potentially modifiable link between the gut and the brain: a link that makers of infant formula should strongly consider.

“There are so many ways we can alter the composition of the microbiota and they can have very strong benefits. Promoting good ‘gut health’ remains a strong focus in the field of nutrition,” Dilger says.

About this neuroscience research article

Funding: The work was supported by Mead Johnson Nutrition.

Source: Lauren Quinn – University of Illinois ACES
Publisher: Organized by NeuroscienceNews.com.
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Abstract for “Dietary polydextrose and galactooligosaccharide increase exploratory behavior, improve recognition memory, and alter neurochemistry in the young pig” by Stephen A. Fleming, Supida Monaikul, Alexander J. Patsavas, Rosaline V. Waworuntu, Brian M. Berg & Ryan N. Dilger in Nutritional Neuroscience. Published online December 18 2017 doi:10.1080/1028415X.2017.1415280

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
University of Illinois ACES “Prebiotics in Infant Formula May Improve Memory, Learning and Alter Brain Function.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 17 January 2018.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/forumla-memory-learning-brain-function-baby-8327/>.
University of Illinois ACES (2018, January 17). Prebiotics in Infant Formula May Improve Memory, Learning and Alter Brain Function. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved January 17, 2018 from http://neurosciencenews.com/forumla-memory-learning-brain-function-baby-8327/
University of Illinois ACES “Prebiotics in Infant Formula May Improve Memory, Learning and Alter Brain Function.” http://neurosciencenews.com/forumla-memory-learning-brain-function-baby-8327/ (accessed January 17, 2018).

Abstract

Dietary polydextrose and galactooligosaccharide increase exploratory behavior, improve recognition memory, and alter neurochemistry in the young pig

Objectives: Previous studies have shown that dietary prebiotics have the potential to improve memory, alter social behavior, and reduce anxiety-like behaviors in rodents. The present research sought to expand upon such results and describe the effects of feeding prebiotics early in life on cognition and neurochemistry using a translational piglet model.

Methods: Pigs were provided customized milk replacer containing 2 g/L each of polydextrose (PDX) and galactooligosaccharide (PDX/GOS) or 0 g/L (Control) from postnatal day (PND) 2-33. Beginning on PND 25, pigs were tested on the novel object recognition (NOR), novel location recognition (NLR), and backtest tasks to measure recognition memory and response to restraint stress. At study conclusion pigs were euthanized and intestine, blood, and brain tissues were collected and analyzed.

Results: PDX/GOS-fed pigs demonstrated recognition memory on the NOR task (P < 0.001) whereas Control pigs did not (P = 0.184). Additionally, PDX/GOS-fed pigs visited the novel and sample objects more frequently (all P < 0.05) while spending less time per visit exploring the sample object (P = 0.028) than Control pigs. Volatile fatty acids (VFAs) were decreased in the ascending colon (P < 0.012), whereas butyrate tended to be higher in blood (P = 0.080) and lower in the hippocampus (P = 0.061) of PDX/GOS-fed pigs. PDX/GOS-fed pigs exhibited lower serotonin (P = 0.016) in the hippocampus.

Conclusion: These findings suggest that early life consumption of PDX/GOS supports recognition memory as measured by NOR while modulating the concentrations of VFAs in the colon, blood, and brain, as well as hippocampal serotonin.

“Dietary polydextrose and galactooligosaccharide increase exploratory behavior, improve recognition memory, and alter neurochemistry in the young pig” by Stephen A. Fleming, Supida Monaikul, Alexander J. Patsavas, Rosaline V. Waworuntu, Brian M. Berg & Ryan N. Dilger in Nutritional Neuroscience. Published online December 18 2017 doi:10.1080/1028415X.2017.1415280

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