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Premature infants are at greater risk for developing cerebral palsy, a motor disability caused by brain injury-related white matter losses, impairing movement, balance, and posture. However, a new study in mice indicates that a cholesterol-like molecule present in breast milk may protect against cerebral palsy. Mice administered breast milk were protected from the harmful effects of white matter losses.

Researchers tested the ability of several oxysterols (naturally occurring cholesterol-like molecules) in human breast milk to promote the production of oligodendrocytes, a type of cell that stimulates white matter development. They found that the oxysterol 20-alpha hydroxycholesterol induced oligodendrocyte production through the sonic hedgehog pathway – a well-known pathway involved in neurodevelopment.

Then, they gave neonatal mice that had experienced inflammation-driven brain injury and subsequent white matter losses 20-alpha hydroxycholesterol. They found that the compound promoted white matter formation, reversing the animals' brain injuries.

These findings suggest that 20-alpha hydroxycholesterol, a compound present in breast milk, influences neonatal white matter development and may benefit infants at risk for cerebral palsy or other brain injury-related disorders. Learn more about the benefits of breast milk in our overview article.

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