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Breastfeeding provides iron for babies and formula should have an iron supoplement.

Iron deficiencies slows learning curve in piglet study

by Kelsey McQuade
Dec 05, 2012

Iron deficiency impacted brain development and slowed learning in a laboratory study with piglets, report researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The recent study completed at the university used newborn piglets to observe the effects of iron deficiency in relation to cognitive development.

The study proved to be two-fold because one goal was to establish neonatal piglets as a model of human development while also testing to see if the mind is sensitive to nutrient deficiencies.

Researchers developed three different liquid diets for two-day-old piglets. The control group received the recommended level of iron, the second group received a moderately iron deficient diet and the third group had an extremely iron deficient diet.

In the first four weeks, the piglet brain grows to half of its adult volume and continues to grow quickly for the next eight weeks. This process is similar to that of a human infant, according to researchers.

After four weeks, the piglets were tested in a T-shaped maze. They were trained to locate milk in the same space and direction, using visual cues from outside the maze.

The piglets on the lowest iron diet could not learn the task, even after six days of training. The reward location was changed in the second part of the test, and the low iron piglets continued to perform poorly.

“The test showed that the subjects are sensitive to nutrients and the behavioral test is specific to an area of the brain called the hippocampus,” said Rodney Johnson, professor of animal sciences and director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences.

Ryan Dilger, assistant professor of animal sciences and a researcher on the study, said it was a proof of concept.

“We were looking at the hippocampus and its sensitivity to nutrition deficiency,” Dilger said.

The hippocampus affects the ability to learn new tasks and remembering. When this area of the brain is altered, it can have a persistent impact in childhood and adulthood, Johnson said.

But Johnson and his team plan to research whether the learning impacts resulting from an iron deficiency can be reversed.

“We want to understand why it [the deficiency] has to have long lasting effects and if there is any way to regain that [learning] ability,” Johnson said.

Dilger and Johnson began developing the piglet model five years ago with the goal of determining such information. They hope to continue using this model in future research, specifically targeted at early life events affecting future development.

Johnson recommends that people of all ages should meet their iron intake requirements especially as obesity continues to be an issue in the United States. Being overweight increases the chances of an iron deficiency, he said.

According to a report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in November, many babies are born with a sufficient amount of iron and breastfeeding continues to increase that supply, making an additional supplement unnecessary. Premature babies are an exception, though, since they have fewer iron stores and need additional resources.

After six months of breastfeeding, a baby should begin to eat iron-rich foods such as meats, green vegetables and cereal. If possible, breastfeeding should supplement the solid foods for a year.

But if the mother is using formula, the AAP recommends a brand that has anywhere from four to 12 milligrams of iron supplement through the first year of life.