Choline intake during pregnancy affects infant cognition

Choline intake during pregnancy affects infant cognition
Choline intake during pregnancy affects infant cognition

What if the nutrients you consume during pregnancy could give your child better cognition?  

A new study looking at the relationship between choline intake during pregnancy and an infants cognition, suggests that eating levels of choline higher than the recommended daily intake of 480 mg choline/day can lead to long term cognitive benefits for infants. (1) Subjects took 930 mg choline/day during their third trimester of pregnancy, resulting in infants having faster information processing speeds, faster reaction times, and general improvements in overall cognitive performance. (1)

Before this study, substantial evidence demonstrated increasing levels of choline during pregnancy in rodents produced lifelong cognitive benefits for their offspring. But, experiments in humans were inconsistent due do poor subject participation and uncontrolled variations in choline intake during pregnancy.

Why is choline important during pregnancy?

During pregnancy the body demands higher choline levels due to fetal and placental development. (2) Choline becomes acetylcholine in the body; a critical neurotransmitter for the development of a fetus’s nervous system during pregnancy. Acetylcholine plays important roles in the differentiation, proliferation, migration, plasticity, and survival of neurons during fetal development. (3) Choline is required for the creation of neuronal and other cellular membranes. (4) The body also uses choline as a dietary source of methyl groups used for epigenetic modifications in a fetus during pregnancy which can produce lasting changes in gene expression. (5,6)

Increasing choline intake during pregnancy benefits an infants cognition in the following ways:  

  • Increased information processing speed (1)
    • Faster information processing speeds during infancy are associated with higher IQ’s later in life (11)
  • Better reaction times (1)
  • General cognitive benefits (1)

Animal models show additional benefits of choline intake during pregnancy 

*** Benefits occur in animal models and not humans.

  • Lifelong cognitive benefits (7)
  • Improved spatial memory (8)
  • Enhanced attention (9)
  • Prevention/less of age related cognitive decline (10)

How to get more choline into your diet during pregnancy

The best ways to increase choline intake during pregnancy are through supplements and eating foods rich in choline. Stay away from choline coming from soy lecithin because it is likely coming from genetically modified soy and will also likely contain allergenic soy proteins. Recall that the recommended choline intake per day 480 mg and subjects in the mentioned study were given 930 mg choline/day.

This means getting the recommended daily choline is likely not enough to take advantage of the cognitive benefits choline can produce in infants if choline intake is increased during pregnancy. You should try and be getting a similar amount to what was given in the study (~930 mg of choline per day) to maximize the likelihood of benefits associated with increased choline intake during pregnancy. 

Foods containing choline

  • Eggs (~115 mg of choline/egg)
  • Beef liver (~420 mg of choline/5 ounces)
  • Grass fed dairy products (milk, yogurt, and kefir have ~ 40 mg of choline/8 ounces)
  • Legumes (garbanzo beans, lima beans, and lentils have ~70 mg of choline/cup)
  • Nuts and seeds (sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and almonds have ~ 50 mg of choline/cup)
  • Cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, and bok choy have ~65 mg of choline/cup when cooked)

Further reading

  1. Caudill, M. A., Strupp, B. J., Muscalu, L., Nevins, J. E., & Canfield, R. L. (2018). Maternal choline supplementation during the third trimester of pregnancy improves infant information processing speed: a randomized, double-blind, controlled feeding study. The FASEB Journal, 32(4), 2172-2180.
  2. Caudill, M. A. (2010). Pre-and postnatal health: evidence of increased choline needs. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 110(8), 1198-1206.
  3. Abreu-Villaça, Y., Filgueiras, C. C., & Manhães, A. C. (2011). Developmental aspects of the cholinergic system. Behavioural brain research, 221(2), 367-378.
  4. Zeisel, S. H. (2006). Choline: critical role during fetal development and dietary requirements in adults. Annu. Rev. Nutr., 26, 229-250.
  5. Jiang, X., Yan, J., West, A. A., Perry, C. A., Malysheva, O. V., Devapatla, S., ... & Caudill, M. A. (2012). Maternal choline intake alters the epigenetic state of fetal cortisol-regulating genes in humans. The FASEB Journal, 26(8), 3563-3574.
  6. Kovacheva, V. P., Davison, J. M., Mellott, T. J., Rogers, A. E., Yang, S., O'Brien, M. J., & Blusztajn, J. K. (2009). Raising gestational choline intake alters gene expression in DMBA-evoked mammary tumors and prolongs survival. The FASEB Journal, 23(4), 1054-1063.
  7. McCann, J. C., Hudes, M., & Ames, B. N. (2006). An overview of evidence for a causal relationship between dietary availability of choline during development and cognitive function in offspring. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 30(5), 696-712.
  8. Meck, W. H., Smith, R. A., & Williams, C. L. (1988). Pre‐and postnatal choline supplementation produces long‐term facilitation of spatial memory. Developmental Psychobiology: The Journal of the International Society for Developmental Psychobiology, 21(4), 339-353.
  9. Cheng, R. K., MacDonald, C. J., Williams, C. L., & Meck, W. H. (2008). Prenatal choline supplementation alters the timing, emotion, and memory performance (TEMP) of adult male and female rats as indexed by differential reinforcement of low-rate schedule behavior. Learning & memory, 15(3), 153-162.
  10. Meck, W. H., & Williams, C. L. (2003). Metabolic imprinting of choline by its availability during gestation: implications for memory and attentional processing across the lifespan. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 27(4), 385-399.
  11. Rose, S. A., & Feldman, J. F. (1997). Memory and speed: Their role in the relation of infant information processing to later IQ. Child Development, 68(4), 630-641.