Research into premature babies found those who were not given nutrient- enriched formula milk had lower IQs by the age of eight than those who had been given the special milk.
But because "critical" spurts in brain growth takes place between the last three months of pregnancy and at the age of two, researchers concluded that their findings could have significance for the nutrition of premature and full-term babies.
In a randomised controlled trial, Professor Alan Lucas of the Institute of Child Health fed 424 premature babies a "nutrition enriched" pre-term formula milk or a standard formula for one month after birth. It was found that those infants fed the standard formula instead of the nutrient enriched one had reduced verbal IQ at eight years.
The effect was particularly notable in boys. The researchers said that IQ by this age is highly predictive of IQs in adults, suggesting that bad nutrition in the early years can have a permanent effect on ability.
The researchers found that there was also a higher incidence of cerebral palsy in those babies fed the standard formula - 38 per cent as opposed to 15 per cent.
However it is unlikely that under-nutrition can cause cerebral palsy; a more likely explanation is that when a premature baby suffers brain damage, early under-nutrition could affect the brain's ability to compensate.
Boys on the pre-term formula had a 12 point advantage in verbal IQ and a 6.3 point advantage in overall IQ over those fed the standard formula although the effect was less pronounced for girls, varying from 2 to 3 points. "That is a huge loss of cognitive potential," said Professor Lucas. "This study provides a clear illustration that early nutrition of premature babies can have profound lifetime effects on brain development, suggesting the idea that diet during critical periods in early life may be of great importance for our health and performance as adults."
He said the findings also had great implications for industry and the production of infant formula with the need for "quality research" into such products.Reuse content