Brain Foods

Brain Foods

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Getting the right amount of the nutrient choline in the womb and in breast milk may supercharge the brains of babies for life, according to emerging research.

A new study shows brain cells of these babies could be larger, making it easier for these children to learn and remember throughout life, even into old age.

"It's one of the few times that prenatal supplementation with a single nutrient has been shown to positively influence the brain for life," says Scott Swartzwelder, Ph.D., senior author of the study and a neuropsychologist at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.

Although research on choline's powerful effects has mostly been in rats, the meaning for humans could be profound. The amount of choline your mother ate when she was pregnant or breastfeeding might have influenced how well you can remember and learn new things - the foundation for your intelligence.

Faster neurons

"In the part of the brain known as the hippocampus, the neurons are actually larger and more responsive, quicker. They communicate with each other better," Swartzwelder says.

Choline is a B complex vitamin and naturally occurs in foods such as eggs, meat, fish, nuts, legumes and soy, along with human breast milk. Choline is needed for producing acetylcholine, the chemical messenger that many nerve cells use to communicate. Choline is an important "building block," essential to the development of cell membranes while in the womb. These membranes keep our cells intact.

In Swartzwelder's study, researchers looked at the effects on neurons in the hippocampus, a part of the brain critical for learning and memory. They fed pregnant rats extra amounts of choline during a brief but critical window of pregnancy. This would translate roughly into the second trimester for humans. Then they studied how their neurons differed from other rats that did not get this supplementation.

The neurons were larger in the choline-supplemented rat pups after they grew up, and had more tentacle-like dendrites that reach out and get signals from nearby cells, Swartzwelder says.

Neurons are information messengers. They use electrical impulses and chemical signals to transmit information between different areas of the brain.

"Think about the people who are the most successful in life. They get the opportunities because they are better able to remember and learn new things. They are more successful socially, in their career and in life. They have a huge advantage," Swartzwelder says.

Studies by other research groups have shown that some of the benefits of prenatal choline supplementation can last into old age where rats performed just as well on tests as when they were young.

His research adds to a growing body of evidence that choline can affect a developing brain when given in the womb and shortly after birth.

One clue that choline is essential to human development is that the nutrient level is high in human mother's milk, according to Jan Krzysztof Blusztajn, Ph.D., professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and research professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.

A small study from the Western Human Nutrition Research Center in Davis, California suggests a lack of both folate and choline could interfere with the body's ability to absorb choline. Low levels of folate also cause neural tube defect, which are serious birth defects that involve incomplete development of the brain, spinal cord or the protective coverings for these organs. However, this study did not look at pregnant women.

Because research finds low levels of choline can cause liver damage, the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences in 1998 for the first time recommended how much choline people should get every day. Most women should get 425 milligrams a day and men need 550. A pregnant woman needs 450 and a woman who is breastfeeding needs 550.

Food, not pills

Even though this is promising news, do not experiment with taking dietary supplements, especially in pregnancy. And always talk to your doctor before taking any medication. Researchers don't know if there is any danger in getting too much.

"I wouldn't say you should go to the neighborhood health store and get pills," Blusztajn warns. "Don't experiment with choline dietary supplements. These are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. You don't know what you are getting." Your best bet is in food. Blusztajn says the best way to get choline is in food such as eggs. As a single egg has 200 milligrams of choline, it's the best source.

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