May 3, 2012

Prenatal choline could ease baby stress and cut some health risks


Pregnant women may have added incentive to bulk up on broccoli and eggs: A Cornell study has found that more choline during pregnancy can reduce a fetus's response to stress and could cut the child's chances of developing hypertension and diabetes later in life.

In a 12-week study led by Marie Caudill, associate professor of nutritional sciences, and graduate student Xinyin Jiang, a group of third-trimester pregnant women consumed approximately double (930 mg) the recommended 450 mg daily intake of choline.

Subsequently, the babies had 33 percent lower concentrations of cortisol -- the hormone produced in response to stress that also increases blood sugar -- compared with a control group of pregnant mothers who consumed 480 mg of choline.

Caudill believes this happened because the choline changed the expression patterns of genes involved in cortisol production by increasing the number of methyl groups attached to placental DNA, known as methylation.

The work, published May 1 online in The Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, is the first human study to suggest a role for choline in the "programming" of key biological processes in the baby.

"The study findings raise the exciting possibility that a higher maternal choline intake may counter some of the adverse effects of prenatal stress on behavioral, neuroendocrine and metabolic development in the offspring," Caudill said.

This could be especially useful for women experiencing anxiety and depression during their pregnancy, as well as those with such conditions as pre-eclampsia.

"A dampening of the baby's response to stress as a result of mom consuming extra choline during pregnancy would be expected to reduce the risk of stress-related diseases such as hypertension and type 2 diabetes throughout the life of the child," she added.

She said additional studies are needed to confirm the study findings and further explore long-term effects.

Earlier studies conducted in animal models have identified other benefits of choline consumption on basic fetal development, as well as memory and learning.

Choline is involved in the production of phosphatidylcholine, a component of all cell membranes necessary for proper cell functioning and required in large amounts during pregnancy to support the rapidly dividing cells of the developing fetus.

In its acetylcholine form, the nutrient functions as a neurotransmitter to improve cognitive ability in mice.

Dietary sources of choline include egg yolks, beef, pork, chicken, milk, legumes and some vegetables. An egg has 115 mg, a cup of beans 70 mg, a cup of cooked broccoli 60 mg and a cup of milk 40 mg. Most prenatal vitamin supplements do not include choline.

"We hope that our data will inform the development of choline intake recommendations for pregnant women that ensure optimal fetal development and reduce the risk of stress-related diseases," Caudill said.

The study was funded by the Egg Nutrition Center, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Nebraska Beef Council, U.S. Department of Agriculture and President's Council of Cornell Women. The authors note that the funding sources had no role in the study design, interpretation of the data and/or publication of the results.

Stacey Shackford is a staff writer at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.