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Catherine Limperopoulos

Breastfeeding boosts metabolites important for brain growth

Catherine Limperopoulos

“Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a non-invasive imaging technique that describes the chemical composition of specific brain structures, enables us to measure metabolites that may play a critical role for growth and explain what makes breastfeeding beneficial for newborns’ developing brains,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D.

Micro-preemies who primarily consume breast milk have significantly higher levels of metabolites important for brain growth and development, according to sophisticated imaging conducted by an interdisciplinary research team at Children’s National.

“Our previous research established that vulnerable preterm infants who are fed breast milk early in life have improved brain growth and neurodevelopmental outcomes. It was unclear what makes breastfeeding so beneficial for newborns’ developing brains,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain at Children’s National. “Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a non-invasive imaging technique that describes the chemical composition of specific brain structures, enables us to measure metabolites essential for growth and answer that lingering question.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 U.S. infants is born preterm. The Children’s research team presented their findings during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

The research-clinicians enrolled babies who were very low birthweight (less than 1,500 grams) and 32 weeks gestational age or younger at birth when they were admitted to Children’s neonatal intensive care unit in the first week of life. The team gathered data from the right frontal white matter and the cerebellum – a brain region that enables people to maintain balance and proper muscle coordination and that supports high-order cognitive functions.

Each chemical has its own a unique spectral fingerprint. The team generated light signatures for key metabolites and calculated the quantity of each metabolite. Of note:

  • Cerebral white matter spectra showed significantly greater levels of inositol (a molecule similar to glucose) for babies fed breast milk, compared with babies fed formula.
  • Cerebellar spectra had significantly greater creatine levels for breastfed babies compared with infants fed formula.
  • And the percentage of days infants were fed breast milk was associated with significantly greater levels of both creatine and choline, a water soluble nutrient.

“Key metabolite levels ramp up during the times babies’ brains experience exponential growth,” says Katherine M. Ottolini, the study’s lead author. “Creatine facilitates recycling of ATP, the cell’s energy currency. Seeing greater quantities of this metabolite denotes more rapid changes and higher cellular maturation. Choline is a marker of cell membrane turnover; when new cells are generated, we see choline levels rise.”

Already, Children’s National leverages an array of imaging options that describe normal brain growth, which makes it easier to spot when fetal or neonatal brain development goes awry, enabling earlier intervention and more effective treatment. “Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy may serve as an important additional tool to advance our understanding of how breastfeeding boosts neurodevelopment for preterm infants,” Limperopoulos adds.

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Improved cerebral and cerebellar metabolism in breast milk-fed VLBW infants.”
    • Monday, April 29, 2019, 3:30–3:45 p.m. (EST)

Katherine M. Ottolini, lead author; Nickie Andescavage, M.D., Attending, Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine and co-author; Kushal Kapse, research and development staff engineer and co-author; Sudeepta Basu, M.D., neonatologist and co-author; and Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain and senior author, all of Children’s National.

Preemie Baby

Getting micro-preemie growth trends on track

Preemie Baby

According to Children’s research presented during the Institute for Healthcare Improvement 2018 Scientific Symposium, standardizing feeding practices – including the timing for fortifying breast milk and formula with essential elements like zinc and protein – improves growth trends for the tiniest preterm infants.

About 1 in 10 infants is born before 37 weeks gestation. These premature babies have a variety of increased health risks, including deadly infections and poor lung function.

Emerging research suggests that getting their length and weight back on track could help. According to Children’s research presented during the Institute for Healthcare Improvement 2018 Scientific Symposium, standardizing feeding practices – including the timing for fortifying breast milk and formula with essential elements like zinc and protein – improves growth trends for the tiniest preterm infants.

The quality-improvement project at Children’s National Health System targeted very low birth weight infants, who weigh less than 3.3 pounds (1,500 grams) at birth. These fragile infants are born well before their internal organs, lungs, brain or their digestive systems have fully developed and are at high risk for ongoing nutritional challenges, health conditions like necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) and overall poor development.

The research team measured progress by tracking the micro-preemies’ mean delta weight Z-score for weight gain, which measures nutritional status.

“In this cohort, mean delta weight Z-scores improved by 43 percent, rising from -1.8 to the goal of -1.0, when we employed an array of interventions. We saw the greatest improvement, 64 percent, among preterm infants who had been born between 26 to 28 weeks gestation,” says Michelande Ridoré, MS, Children’s NICU quality-improvement program lead who presented the group’s preliminary findings. “It’s very encouraging to see improved growth trends just six months after introducing these targeted interventions and to maintain these improvements for 16 months.”

Within Children’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), micro-preemies live in an environment that mimics the womb, with dimmed lighting and warmed incubators covered by blankets to muffle extraneous noise. The multidisciplinary team relied on a number of interventions to improve micro-preemies’ long-term nutritional outcomes, including:

  • Reducing variations in how individual NICU health care providers approach feeding practices
  • Fortifying breast milk (and formula when breast milk was not available), which helps these extra lean newborns add muscle and strengthen bones
  • Early initiation of nutrition that passes through the intestine (enteral feeds)
  • Re-educating all members of the infants’ care teams about the importance of standardized feeding and
  • Providing a decision aid about feeding intolerance.

Dietitians were included in the daily rounds, during which the multidisciplinary team discusses each infant’s care plan at their room, and used traffic light colors to describe how micro-preemies were progressing with their nutritional goals. It’s common for these newborns to lose weight in the first few days of life.

  • Infants in the “green” zone had regained their birth weight by day 14 of life and possible interventions included adjusting how many calories and protein they consumed daily to reflect their new weight.
  • Infants in the “yellow” zone between day 15 to 18 of life remained lighter than what they weighed at birth and were trending toward lower delta Z-scores. In addition to assessing the infant’s risk factors, the team could increase calories consumed per day and add fortification, among other possible interventions.
  • Infants in the “red” zone remained below their birth weight after day 19 of life and recorded depressed delta Z-scores. These infants saw the most intensive interventions, which could include conversations with the neonatologist and R.N. to discuss strategies to reverse the infant’s failure to grow.

Future research will explore how the nutritional interventions impact newborns with NEC, a condition characterized by death of tissue in the intestine. These infants face significant challenges gaining length and weight.

Institute for Healthcare Improvement 2018 Scientific Symposium presentation

  • “Improved growth of very low birthweight infants in the neonatal intensive care unit.”

Caitlin Forsythe, MS, BSN, RNC-NIC, NICU clinical program coordinator, Neonatology, and lead author; Michelande Ridoré, MS, NICU quality-improvement program lead; Victoria Catalano Snelgrove, RDN, LD, CNSC, CLC, pediatric clinical dietitian; Rebecca Vander Veer, RD, LD, CNSC, CLC, pediatric clinical dietitian; Erin Fauer, RDN, LD, CNSC, CLC, pediatric clinical dietitian; Judith Campbell, RNC, IBCLC, NICU lactation consultant; Eresha Bluth, MHA, project administrator; Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., neonatologist; Lamia Soghier, M.D., MEd, Medical Unit Director, Neonatal Intensive Care Unit; and Mary Revenis, M.D., NICU medical lead on nutrition and senior author; all of Children’s National Health System.