A new study reveals that babies who received the essential nutrient choline perinatally (before or just after birth) were far less likely to exhibit a physiologic risk factor for schizophrenia at the age of 33 days compared with those who received a placebo.
“We thought that if we could get a good intervention prenatally or early postnatally, we could decrease risk for the disorder,” said lead author Randy Ross, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine.
“This is really a first step towards trying to develop a prevention strategy,” said Ross. He added that finding ways to prevent a disease “may be much more effective than treating it after it comes on.”
The randomized controlled trial involved 93 healthy pregnant women, half of whom took choline supplements during their last two trimesters of pregnancy. Their babies also received choline soon after delivery.
The findings revealed that the offspring who received choline perinatally had a significantly lower rate of a physiologic risk factor for schizophrenia at the age of 33 days compared to the babies who had received matching placebo.
The supplements were found to be safely tolerated by all mothers and infants.
According the researchers, “several” maternal risk factors for schizophrenia are tied to decreased availability of choline for a fetus. Pregnant women are often advised to increase their intake of choline-rich foods, such as eggs and meat.
“Basic research indicates that choline supplementation during pregnancy facilitates cognitive functioning in offspring,” said Robert Freedman, M.D., coauthor of the study and editor of the American Journal of Psychiatry, which published the study.
In a healthy brain, a full response is given after being exposed to a clicking sound, followed by a more inhibited response to a second click just after. However, patients with schizophrenia commonly have deficient inhibition.
Since full-blown schizophrenia does not typically appear until after adolescence, the researchers tested risk for the disorder by measuring the infants’ responses to a pair of clicking sounds by placing electrophysiologic sensors on each baby’s head while they slept.
At the five-week postnatal checkup, a much larger proportion of the infants who had received the choline supplementation showed normal inhibition responses compared to the infants who had not received the supplementation.
There were no differences in inhibition at the 13-week postnatal checkup. There were also no treatment-related effects on delivery, birth, infant development, or maternal or infant health.
“Genes associated with schizophrenia are common, so prevention has to be applied to the entire population, and it has to be safe,” said Freedman.
The finding that choline supplementation “ameliorates some of the pathophysiology associated with risk for schizophrenia now requires longer-term followup to assess whether it decreases risk for the later development of illness as well,” he noted.
“To me, these results basically say that this whole idea is worth pursuing. And that’s always exciting,” added Ross.
Source: American Journal of Psychiatry