Research conducted by UCL finds that babies who were given nutritionally modified formula milk by age 16 had the same maths and English test results as children who received standard formula milk. This is according to a major new study. It links seven random controlled trials to school performance data.
Researchers from the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health and the UCL Institute of Education published their findings in the journal BMJ. They used a novel approach that connected school performance and health data to determine if nutritionally modified formula milk had any impact on later cognitive ability.
The research team analyzed data from 1763 children taking part in trials between 1993 and 2001 and were randomly given either enriched or standard formula milk. Randomization ensured that the groups were identical in every way apart from the type of formula milk they received.
The researchers then gathered anonymized data for 91 percent (1607) of the children from their school records between the ages of 11 and 16 to see if the type of milk they had been given as infants affected their school performance.
Two trials evaluated formula milks that were enriched in a long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFA) which is among the constituents of breast milk that play an important role in brain development. Another study examined two formula milks that were enriched with nutrients as well as a follow-up formula high in iron. Two additional formulae were tested using nucleotides or palmitate sn-2, but they were not thought to be related to cognition.
The data from the trials was linked to school records. It revealed that there was no benefit in the scores of national maths exams at the age of 16 (GCSEs). The LCPUFA supplemented formula led to children scoring lower in maths and English at the age of 11. However it was not confirmed at the age of 16. None of the other formulas that were modified led to an improvement in English performance at age 16, in maths, and English at 11 years (Key Stage 2), or affected the eligibility of children with special needs support or the achievement of five or more GCSE grades C or higher.
Our findings suggest there are no long-term benefits from these modified formula milks on brain development. Regulators should use these findings to reconsider licensing if modifications of formula milks are approved and to ensure that labeling of products excludes unproven claims.”
Ruth Gilbert, Co-Author and Professor, UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health
The researchers note that although the tests were conducted some time ago, they are relevant to formula milks used today. New formulas are currently being created. This study shows how linkage to data on education could make long-term follow up of cognition much simpler for future and past formula tests.
Lead author Dr Maximiliane Verfurden who conducted the research at the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, added: “No previous research has shown conclusive benefits for cognitive capacity of these nutritionally modified formulas, however, the evidence was ambiguous due to the limited follow-up time and high drop-out rates over time
“The current study combines data from historical randomized trials together with data that is collected routinely from school tests to provide the strongest evidence possible on whether these formula changes impact children’s cognitive abilities.
“This study sets the standard for other trials and cohorts to link the results of old trials with administrative data to address the issue of high drop-out rates and answer crucial questions regarding the long-term outcomes for children and young persons.”
The study was supported with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, UCL Bloomsbury and East London Doctoral Training Partnership, Great Ormond Street Hospital Charity Research Starter Grant, NIHR Children and Families Policy Research Unit and Health Data Research UK.
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