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Memory, learning benefits from adding prebiotics to infant formula – for piglets

Prebiotics in infant formula could improve learning and memory and alter brain chemistry.

Our Review Summary

Using piglets to test hypotheses related to infant brain development and the consumption of prebiotics seems to be important research, but at this point, it is hard to tell how relevant this research is to humans. A better discussion of the benefits and harms found in the study, as well as the human relevance of the overall research would have greatly improved this release. Nothing in the release relates to breast milk — it only compared formulas. Any discussion of formula versus breast milk in infant development needs to refer to the overall context of what we know about the topic already and this release skipped those details.


Why This Matters

It could be important if nutrition research, focused on giving prebiotic formula to piglets, were demonstrated to be applicable to humans. While formula-fed piglets might have shown higher scores on a “novel object recognition” test, it is far too early to imply that these results would be replicated in humans. The likely value of this research is in better understanding of the relationships between gut and neurological function. That’s important basic science, but not ready for clinical application. Reports of animal research sponsored by a major manufacturer of the product being researched needs to be treated with a high level of scrutiny and possibly skepticism.


Does the news release adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There is no discussion of the associated costs of both formula and prebiotic-enhanced formula which could be considerable considering the amount and length of time an infant would consume it.

Does the news release adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The description of benefits lacks any mention that trials in piglets may have little bearing on how human infants would respond to the prebiotic formula.

All we learn is that two-day old piglets given a cow’s milk-based infant formula supplemented with polydextrose (PDX) and galactooligosaccharide (GOS) were tested at 25 days old with learning, memory, and stress tests.  There is no evidence to suggest that the same result would be found in human infants.

Does the news release adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There are known disadvantages of formula over breast milk so harms should be included in any discussion of changing infant nutrition patterns.

Does the news release seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The strength of the research, its validity and relevance to humans were mostly missing from this research. If piglets fed PDX and GOS spent more time playing with new objects than pigs who didn’t receive prebiotic supplements it is premature to declare this any sort of real medical advance.

Does the news release commit disease-mongering?


There is no obvious disease-mongering here.

Does the news release identify funding sources & disclose conflicts of interest?


The release notes that the research was funded by Mead Johnson Nutrition, the manufacturer of a prebiotic infant formula.

Does the news release compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

There was a clear need to discuss the alternative to infant formula which is, of course, breast milk of the mother mammal. It is curious to know if the control piglets were able to suckle with their mother, and thus gain other socio-emotional benefits of that bonding (plus probably other important developmental constituents of breast milk) denied to the formula-fed pigs.

Does the news release establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

This published study (but not the release) mentions that infant formula supplemented with prebiotics are currently available.

Does the news release establish the true novelty of the approach?


The release hints that the novelty of the research is that the formula testing involved piglets instead of the traditional rodents used in such studies. “Piglets are widely considered a more informative model for human infants than mice and rats; their digestive systems, behavioral responses, and brain development are remarkably similar to human infants,” the release claimed.

Does the news release include unjustifiable, sensational language, including in the quotes of researchers?


There is no mention in the title or first paragraph that this was piglet research (which could be misleading for those who only read the title and the first paragraph) yet the language used was largely appropriate.

Total Score: 4 of 10 Satisfactory


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