Breastfeeding boosts infants’ IQs, but only if the babies have a genetic variant that enhances their metabolism of breast milk, according to a report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“It is this genetic variant in FADS2, a gene involved in the control of fatty acid pathways, that may help the children make better use of the breast milk and promote the brain development that is associated with a higher IQ score,” said Julia Kim-Cohen, assistant professor of psychology and a member of the research team.
“Children who do not carry the ‘helpful’ genetic variant have normal average IQ scores,” Kim-Cohen said. “Being breastfed for them is not associated with an IQ advantage.”
The study included researchers from King’s College, London, Duke University, and the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.
The intelligence quotient (IQ) has long been at the heart of debates about nature versus nurture. Twin studies document both strong genetic influences and nongenetic environmental influences on IQ, particularly for young children.
This study looked at how long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAS), which are present in human milk but not in cow’s milk or most infant formulas, are metabolized. LC-PUFAS in breast milk, the authors said, is believed to enhance cognitive development because the fatty acids are required for efficient neurotransmission and are involved in neuronal growth and regeneration.
The study included 1,037 children in New Zealand and 1,116 families with same sex twins in England and Wales. Those who were breastfed and had the genetic variant FADS2 had IQs that were 5.6 to 6.3 points higher than children who were breastfed but did not have the variant.
“The finding has many implications, including for the public understanding of genetics,” the authors said. “To date, research on gene-environment interactions has been dominated by the search for genetic variants that increase disease susceptibility to environmental pathogens. However, genes are not only implicated in disease. Here we have shown that a genetic variant may also enhance a favorable response to a health promoting exposure present throughout human ancestry.”
PNAS Early Edition: doi/10.1073/pnas.0704292104