The Right Nutrient Can Boost Baby's Brain Function

Choline may help a child's early development, especially those with Down syndrome

Do you like scrambled eggs and peanuts? Eat them when you’re pregnant. Research says a nutrient found in egg yolks, liver, peanuts and soy could offer profound, lifelong benefits to fetuses with Down syndrome. According to a new study published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience, a choline-rich diet may help improve emotional and cognitive function permanently in babies with Down syndrome. Past research suggests that choline is important for all pregnant mothers—adequate amounts of choline during pregnancy and lactation is necessary for proper brain development and memory function.

The newest study, conducted on mice, found that providing more dietary choline during pregnancy and breastfeeding led to dramatic improvements in attention and emotion regulation in the baby mice born with Down syndrome. The results also suggest that giving choline to Down syndrome mice during early development could reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s disease later. According to the National Down Syndrome Society, Alzheimer's-type dementia affects over 25 percent of people with Down syndrome over the age of 35.

For this study, lead author Barbara Strupp, Ph.D., professor of nutritional sciences and psychology at Cornell University and her team, supplemented half of the pregnant mice’s diets with choline, and fed the rest a normal diet. Those on the supplemented diet received about four and a half times the amount of choline than the non-supplemented diet. When the Down syndrome baby mice reached six months of age, Strupp tested their impulsivity, attention span, emotional control and other cognitive abilities. She found that those whose mothers had been fed the choline-enriched diet became less agitated than those who were given a normal diet.

Though it’s not one we hear much about, choline is in fact an essential nutrient, necessary for normal cardiovascular, nerve and brain function, and for cellular repair. Our body manufactures it in small amounts, and we must get the rest from our diet. According to the Linus Pauling Institute, there is not currently enough research to suggest how much choline provides optimal health benefits–for anyone. For this reason, there are no recommended daily allowances for choline but there are “adequate intake levels” (AI) suggestions—the minimum amount needed to prevent symptoms of deficiency. Getting too little choline can cause fatigue, insomnia, memory problems, nerve-muscle imbalances and, in extreme cases, liver damage. The AI for pregnant women is currently set at 450 mg/day, and 550 mg/day for breastfeeding women. According to Strupp’s colleague, Marie Caudill, Ph.D., R.D., professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell, who is currently studying choline’s effects on pregnant women, only 10 percent of pregnant women are meeting current dietary recommendations.

“It is too early to know if extra choline will beneficially affect human brain development and function, however, there is enough to advise pregnant and lactating women on the benefits of consuming a diet rich in choline,” says Caudill.

To add more choline to your diet, stock up on eggs (egg yolks to be exact), beef liver, wheat germ, cod, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, tofu, navy beans, shrimp and salmon. A 3.5-ounce serving of liver will give you a whopping 418 mg of choline, while two eggs supply roughly 280 mg of choline.

While choline research is still preliminary, it does underscore what we already know about getting proper nutrition during pregnancy: Eating a well-balanced diet that’s full of fruits, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains can help keep moms-to-be healthy and strong, and provide a solid foundation for her developing baby.

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