By Kerry Grens
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Taking extra choline during pregnancy does not improve babies' language and memory skills, according to a new study.
"I think eating the recommended amount of choline, which is just about a half of a gram a day for pregnant women, would probably do you well," Dr. Steven Zeisel, the senior author of the study and a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, told Reuters Health. "Going to high levels doesn't always give you improvement."
The results contrast with earlier studies in animals showing that a choline boost in utero improves rodents' performance on memory tasks. Companies claim that choline pills support "brain health," along with the health of other organs, and sell choline supplements over the counter for about $9 for 100 250-milligram capsules.
Choline is an essential nutrient found in meat, eggs and milk, and during pregnancy and breastfeeding, large amounts of choline are delivered to the baby through the mother. Zeisel said it's possible that the women in the study who didn't take a choline pill were getting enough from their diet.
Earlier studies have found that pregnant women with very low levels of choline in their diet have a higher chance of delivering a baby with a birth defect (see Reuters Health report of September 25, 2009). And adults who eat a choline-rich diet perform better on memory tests (see Reuters Health report of November 23, 2011: http://reut.rs/swPWp3).
To see if adding extra choline during pregnancy can offer any benefits to babies, Zeisel and his colleagues asked 99 pregnant women to take six pills every day, beginning when they were 18 weeks pregnant and continuing until three months after the baby was born.
Fifty of the moms received fake pills containing corn oil, while 49 received pills with 833 milligrams (mg) of phosphatidylcholine, a form of choline.
The phosphatidylcholine pills added up to 750 mg of choline each day, the equivalent of 170 percent of the recommended level for pregnant women and 140 percent of the recommended daily amount for breastfeeding moms.
When the children were 10 and 12 months old, Zeisel's team gave them a battery of tests to measure short and long term memory, language skills and general development.
There were no differences between the two groups on any of the tests, the team reports in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
TRACKED LONG ENOUGH?
Marie Caudill, a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who was not involved in the current research, said the study was well conducted, but she offered a number of reasons that might explain the discrepancy between the animal studies and the current findings.
One possibility is that the babies were not tracked long enough to see any differences in their abilities.
"The animal studies demonstrated (that) supplementing the maternal diet with extra choline during pregnancy resulted in lasting beneficial effects on cognitive functioning in the adult offspring and prevented age-related cognitive decline," Caudill told Reuters Health by email.
Additionally, the type of choline used - phosphatidylcholine - might be less effective than choline itself. (Zeisel's group chose not to use choline because it can result in a fishy body odor.)
In addition, the tests may not be "sufficiently challenging," Caudill added.
Zeisel agreed that perhaps as children age and start to perform more complex mental processing, it might be easier to measure if a child has a deficit or a strength.
For now, he said, there's no reason to use supplements during pregnancy to get extra choline, and women should refer to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recommendations for how much choline they should get from their diet.
Zeisel and his colleagues are developing studies in Gambia, where dietary choline levels are known to be low, to see if supplementation there might make a bigger difference than in a region where choline intake appears to be sufficient.
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/SWJifr The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, November 7, 2012.