Ithaca, NY and Augusta, GA—New studies have shown that maternal intake of the nutrient choline during pregnancy can have a positive impact on the neural functions of children born with Down syndrome, as well as those whose mothers consumed alcohol during the first trimester. Choline, found in egg yolks, liver, nuts, broccoli and cauliflower, is part of several major phospholipids that are critical for normal membrane structure and function according to the Journal of Nutrition Web site. This nutrient is also present in numerous brain support supplements.

A study done by Cornell University researchers and published June 2 in Behavioral Neuroscience used mice with Down syndrome to see if their mothers’ choline intake during pregnancy had any affect on them. At six months of age, the mice were behaviorally assessed for another six months and researchers found that mice with Down syndrome, born of mothers who received 4.5 times more choline than unsupplemented mothers, had dramatic improvements in attention, cognition and emotion control. The fact that these improvements were seen many months after the period of choline supplementation suggests that it could protect the Down syndrome carriers from neurodegeneration and dementia often present in middle aged Down syndrome individuals. This is the first study to evaluate the effects of maternal choline supplementation in a rodent model of Down syndrome and one of the few studies to use mice instead of rats.

Another study done by researchers at the Medical College of Georgia and published in Cell Death and Disease, found that choline may block skull and brain damage that can result from alcohol consumption during the first month of pregnancy. Alcohol can increase levels of the lipid ceramide in the fetus. Ceramide can induce cell death resulting in neural crest damage, which can repress the development of the brain and bones. Researchers added CDP-choline to mouse cells, and saw that cell death and ceramide were reduced. Follow-up studies are being done to see whether CDP-choline should be taken preventatively or to rescue damaged cells.

Additional human research on the use of choline for these applications is needed, but the results of these studies are promising.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, August 2010 (published ahead of print on June 26, 2010)