Ithaca, NY—Seven-year-old children performed better on a task requiring sustained attention if their mothers consumed twice the recommended amount of choline during their pregnancy, according to a new study from Cornell University.

Research in rodent models has shown that adding extra choline to the maternal diet produces long-term cognitive benefits for the offspring—besides improving attention and memory throughout life, maternal choline supplementation in rodents has mitigated cognitive adversity caused by prenatal stress, fetal alcohol exposure, epilepsy, Down syndrome, and Alzheimer’s disease.

For the current study, all women consumed a prepared diet with a specified amount of choline throughout the third trimester of pregnancy. Half of the women consumed 480mg per day, slightly exceeding the recommended intake level of 450mg; the other half consumed 930mg choline per day.

When tested at 7 years old, the children of the women in the 480mg group showed a decline in accuracy from the beginning to the end of a sustained attention task, while those from the 930mg group maintained a high level of accuracy throughout the task, in findings that parallel the effects of maternal choline supplementation in rodents.

“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,” said Barbara Strupp, professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences (DNS) and Department of Psychology, and co-senior author of the study, “Prenatal Choline Supplementation Improves Child Sustained Attention: A Seven-Year Follow-Up of a Randomized Controlled Feeding Trial,” published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

These findings also suggest that the recommended amount of choline doesn’t meet the needs of the fetal brain. It can be difficult to get enough: While choline is found in common foods including egg yolks, lean red meat, fish, poultry, legumes, nuts, and cruciferous vegetables, it is absent from most prenatal vitamins, and more than 90% of pregnant people consume less than the recommended amount.

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“Our findings suggest population-wide benefits of adding choline to a standard prenatal vitamin regimen,” said Strupp.

In agreement with her: Richard Canfield, co-senior author of the study, and a senior research associate in DNS. “By showing that the beneficial effects of prenatal supplementation endure into childhood, these findings illustrate a role for prenatal choline in programming the course of child cognitive development,” Canfield said. “And because the ability to sustain attention in challenging situations is critical to nearly all areas of cognitive performance, the cumulative impact of improving sustained attention is likely to be substantial.”