Eating choline-heavy diet during pregnancy can boost child’s attention span

ITHACA, N.Y. — Going overboard on eggs and lean meat while pregnant can help mothers give their children a better attention span, a new study finds. Researchers from Cornell University say consuming twice the recommended amount of choline leads to children displaying better focus during tasks which require constant attention.

Choline is an essential nutrient for both humans and animals. It’s important for chemical reactions in the nervous system and for the development of normal brain functioning. Common sources of choline include egg yolks, lean red meat, fish, poultry, nuts, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cabbage.

The study compared seven-year-old children from mothers who ate a diet with normal levels of choline and another group from mothers eating twice the typical amount. The results suggest that recommended choline levels in dietary guidelines don’t fully meet the needs of a mother and her unborn child. Moreover, researchers say most prenatal vitamins don’t contain choline and 90 percent of pregnant women don’t even meet the recommended amounts in their daily diet.

“Our findings suggest population-wide benefits of adding choline to a standard prenatal vitamin regimen,” says co-senior author of the study Barbara Strupp in a university release.

“Current recommendations for pregnant women were set in 1998 and are based on the amount of choline needed to prevent liver dysfunction in men, not on the more relevant outcome of offspring neurocognitive development,” adds co-senior author Richard Canfield.

Choline may also protect against brain disease

All of the mothers in the new study consumed a diet with a specific amount of choline during the third trimester of their pregnancies. Half consumed 480 mg of choline each day, which is slightly more than the recommended intake (450 mg). The other half consumed 930 mg each day, more than doubling the daily recommendation.

Seven years later, the children of women eating 480 mg of choline during their pregnancies displayed less accuracy throughout a sustained attention task. Meanwhile, children of mothers consuming 930 mg maintained a high level of accuracy during the test.

“By demonstrating that maternal choline supplementation in humans produces offspring attentional benefits that are similar to those seen in animals,” Strupp says. “Our findings suggest that the full range of cognitive and neuroprotective benefits demonstrated in rodents may also be seen in humans.”

Previous studies involving lab mice have found that extra choline in a mother’s diet leads to long-term cognitive benefits in their children. Scientists have also found that more choline protects against the cognitive impacts of stress, fetal alcohol exposure, autism, epilepsy, Down syndrome, and Alzheimer’s disease.

“By showing that the beneficial effects of prenatal supplementation endure into childhood, these findings illustrate a role for prenatal choline in programming the course of child cognitive development,” Canfield concludes. “And because the ability to sustain attention in challenging situations is critical to nearly all areas of cognitive performance, the cumulative impact of improving sustained attention is likely to be substantial.”

The findings appear in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

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