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A Neuroscientist's Salute to Breastfeeding

In honor of world breastfeeding week, we invited a commentary from a unique source--Professor Michael Paradiso of Brown University, a renowned neuroscientist who has developed an interest in the role that breastfeeding plays releasing hormones--and how those hormones affect a woman's brain. We note that there are many circumstances in which breastfeeding is simply impossible due to maternal health issues, physiological issues and in the transmission of HIV. In fact, there is even a phenomenon of [child to breastfeeding woman transmission](http://aidsperspective.net/blog/?p=868)(CTBT) in which seronegative babies end up infecting their mothers with HIV (infants are contaminated by medical technologies or blood in substandard facilities). In spite of all the obstacles, this post honors all mothers in their quest to do the very best for their babies given their circumstances. Here are Dr. Paradiso's observations:

>In honor of world breastfeeding week, we offer a few reminders about why this ancient behavior common to all mammals is important and relevant to 21st century homo sapiens. First, the skin-to-skin contact that comes with nursing is itself beneficial to the baby. In classic behavioral experiments from the mid 20th century, it was found that baby monkeys deprived of comforting touch grow up to have significant behavioral abnormalities. Second, breast milk is special. The composition of milk from different mammals is quite variable and presumably optimized for the species. This is why cow milk is nutritionally deficient for humans. Over the years we have learned that key elements of human milk are missing in formula and formula companies now supplement. Examples of this are taurine and fatty acids such as DHA and arachidonic acid that are important for brain development. The million dollar question is: have we missed anything? Will we learn in 5 or 50 years that there are additional components of human milk that are critical for brain development? Given the complexity of milk and the difficulty of assessing effects on brain, cognition, and behavior, this is certainly possible.

>Aside from skin-to-skin contact and nutrition, there are other ways that nursing benefits mother and child. Recent research suggests that nursing changes the mother’s brain in a way that improves bonding with the child. Incredibly, studies in animals show that breastfeeding changes the mother’s brain in ways that are similar to changes caused by addictive drugs. But rather than leading to the repetition of destructive addictive behaviors, nursing is presumable a reinforcing behavior that has evolved for the purpose of providing the baby with the best start possible.

>In the end the strongest reason to breastfeed is also the simplest. We are mammals and just like other mammals, we have evolved a remarkable self contained system to nourish our children with all the nutrients needed for the development of brain and body. Why argue with perfection!.

With his co-authors, Michael Paradiso is the author of one of the leading textbooks on Neuroscience, Bear MF, Connors B, Paradiso MA (1996) Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain.

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