Have you heard about choline? It was recognised as an essential nutrient in 1998 – and it’s no surprise that a full understanding of its benefits is still emerging.
It’s understood that choline – found in egg yolks, lean red meat, fish, poultry, legumes, nuts and cruciferous vegetables (brussels sprouts, cauliflower etc) – supports cellular growth and metabolism.
But, as researchers from Cornell University advise in a fascinating new article, years of mouse studies have found that supplementing the maternal diet with added choline “produces long-term cognitive benefits for the offspring”.
In other words, it made for smarter mice.
But as the Cornell researchers advise, in addition to improving offspring attention and memory throughout life, maternal choline supplementation in rodents has “proven to be neuroprotective for the offspring by mitigating the cognitive adversities caused by prenatal stress, foetal alcohol exposure, autism, epilepsy, Down syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease”.
So what about in people?
There’s a lot to explore there in humans, and Cornell has made a good start with a study that found:
“Seven-year-old children performed better on a challenging task requiring sustained attention if their mothers consumed twice the recommended amount of choline during their pregnancy.”
The study, which compared these children with those whose mothers had consumed the recommended amount of choline, “suggests that the recommended choline intake for expectant mothers does not fully meet the needs of the foetal brain”.
Dr Barbara Strupp is a professor in Cornell’s Division of Nutritional Sciences and Department of Psychology. She is the co-senior author of the study that suggests “population-wide benefits of adding choline to a standard prenatal vitamin regimen”.
The prevailing recommendations for pregnant women were set in 1998 “and are based on the amount of choline needed to prevent liver dysfunction in men, not on the more relevant outcome of offspring neurocognitive development”.
In the study, all women consumed a prepared diet with a specified amount of choline throughout the third trimester of pregnancies.
One half of these women consumed 480 mg choline per day, which slightly exceeds the recommended adequate intake (AI) level of 450 mg/day.
The other half consumed a total intake of 930 mg choline per day, approximately double the AI level.
When tested at seven years of age, the children of women in the 480 mg/day group showed a decline in accuracy from the beginning to the end of a sustained attention task, while those from the 930 mg/day group maintained a high level of accuracy throughout the task.
These findings parallel the effects of maternal choline supplementation and deprivation in rodents, using a closely analogous sustained attention task.
Dr Strupp said: “By demonstrating that maternal choline supplementation in humans produces offspring attentional benefits that are similar to those seen in animals, our findings suggest that the full range of cognitive and neuroprotective benefits demonstrated in rodents may also be seen in humans.”
This wasn’t a big study: 26 mothers completed the randomised choline feeding trial, and 21 children were re-recruited for the seven-year cognitive follow-up.
The results appear to be robust. For policy-makers to confidently underwrite a doubling of the recommended amount of choline, much larger studies would be likely be necessary.
Meanwhile, pregnant women might do well to confer with an on-the-ball nutritionist.