Choline, an essential B vitamin nutrient, lowers the risk of fetal brain developmental problems that may occur after maternal infections such as colds and influenza (flu), according to a new study published in the Journal of Pediatrics.
“Mothers want to give their babies the best possible start in life,” said Robert Freedman, MD, professor of psychiatry from the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “Colds and flu are often unavoidable, even if the mother has had a flu shot. But colds and flu during pregnancy double the risk of future mental illnesses. More and more information shows that choline helps the baby’s brain develop properly.”
“We found that higher levels of choline prevent fetal brain problems from developing, even when the mother is infected. Choline supplements in pregnancy can have a lifelong benefit for the infant.”
Researchers from the University of Colorado and Denver Health Medical Center’s Prenatal Clinic assessed the relationship between maternal infection, C-Reactive Protein (CRP, a marker of maternal inflammation) and the mothers’ choline levels.
Fetal brain development was determined by measuring the baby’s brain waves soon after birth. The negative effects of maternal infections were seen in a reduction of the normal inhibition, also known as response inhibition, of newborns’ brain waves to repeated sounds. Simply put, response inhibition is the ability to cease or delay an action and to be able to reflect rather than display impulsive behavior.
The findings show that newborns’ response inhibition decreased by 27 percent when mothers had an infection, such as a cold or flu, during the first 16 weeks of pregnancy. However, this effect was prevented if the mother had higher choline levels in the first 16 weeks.
Parents also described their child’s behavior at one year. These reports show that children whose mothers were infected, and had lower choline levels, had significantly decreased ability to pay attention, play quietly and cuddle with their parents. These effects did not occur if the mother had higher choline levels.
These behavioral traits were summarized in a scale of “self regulation,” which was reduced 28 percent in children of women with infection and lower choline levels. Higher choline levels improved self regulation in the children of women with infection to normal levels.
In addition, five of 53 children whose mothers had an infection (9.4 percent) had regulation levels in the lowest fifth percentile of a normal sample, compared to one of 83 children of mothers without an infection. This effect did not occur if their mothers had higher choline levels in pregnancy. Suitable choline levels were found in only 25 percent of the women, despite encouragement to eat foods with more choline.
The body creates some choline on its own and it is also naturally present in certain foods, including liver, red meat and eggs. However, up to 75 percent of pregnant women consume less choline during pregnancy than recommended (450 mg of choline per day). Additionally, little or no amounts are present in prenatal vitamins. Supplements, available without a prescription and now recommended by the American Medical Association, can help expecting moms increase their choline levels to protect their baby’s development.