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Choline plays key role in brain development

Reuters News

The B vitamin choline -- recently classified as an "essential nutrient for humans" -- appears to play a key role in brain development, mounting evidence suggests.

"The importance of choline for maintaining health in adults has been recognized for some time, but recent work points out its critical role in brain development," Dr. Jan Krzysztof Blusztajn of Boston University School of Medicine in Massachusetts, writes in the current issue of Science.

The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences designated choline an essential nutrient in April of this year.

In light of findings suggesting that choline plays a crucial role in cognitive development both prior to and shortly after birth, the board recommended that pregnant and nursing women increase their intake of the vitamin. While the board suggests that women who are not pregnant get 425 milligrams (mg) of the vitamin daily, it set the recommended daily dose for pregnant women at 450 mg per day, and the value for nursing women at 550 mg daily, Blusztajn reports.

A component of cell membranes, choline is also a precursor of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and other chemical messengers.

Lab studies suggest that the vitamin plays crucial roles in various processes relating to learning and memory. Among other things, choline appears to stimulate cell division in the developing brain.

Studies with pregnant rats suggest choline may have very long lasting -- possibly life-long -- effects on brain function, Blusztajn notes. In one study, pregnant rats were fed either no choline, limited amounts of the nutrient, or relatively high doses. Pups born to the mothers that received no choline did poorly on tests designed to measure attention and certain types of memory, Blusztajn reports. Those born to mothers that got the supplemental choline scored much higher.

"These behavioral effects of choline availability in utero were remarkably long-lasting and persisted beyond the age of 2 years, an age at which a rat is developmentally old," he reports. "Thus, prenatal supplementation with choline prevented the normally observed memory decline of old age."

Whether choline has the same effects on brain function in humans remains to be seen, Blusztajn writes. But findings to date suggest that "optimal dietary choline early in life may improve human cognitive development and slow cognitive declines associated with aging."

Though choline is found in many foods, vegetables, peanuts, eggs and meats, especially liver, are the best sources of the nutrient, according to the article.

SOURCE: Science 1998;281:794-795.


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