Many psychiatric illnesses, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and anxiety disorders may stem from abnormalities in brain development that begin before birth. Researchers are trying to determine whether dietary supplements taken by pregnant mothers or infants can reduce the risk of such illnesses. At a recent scientific meeting, researcher Randal Ross and colleagues reported that compared to placebo, choline supplements reduced problems with a brain process called sensory gating in one-month-old infants and also improved the children’s attention span and social skills at age 3.
Sensory gating is the process by which the brain filters out unimportant information, to avoid flooding higher cortical centers with irrelevant stimuli. Deficits in the way the brain inhibits response to this type of irrelevant information are associated with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.
In Ross’s study, healthy pregnant mothers received either a placebo or 6300 mg of choline, a nutrient found in liver, egg yolks, and meat. After delivery, the infants also received 700 mg of supplemental choline per day. In children who carried CHRNA7, a risk gene for schizophrenia discovered by Ross’s colleague Robert Freedman, choline reversed the associated risk of sensory gating problems and normalized their behavior at age 3.
Sensory gating is a process by which the brain filters out unimportant information, to avoid flooding higher cortical centers with irrelevant stimuli. New research from Randal Ross and colleagues shows that infants of mothers with anxiety have deficits in the way their brains inhibit response to this type of irrelevant information.
Mothers who were rated higher on the trait of anxiety had paradoxically lower levels of the inflammatory cytokine interleukin 6 at week 16 of their pregnancy, and their one-month-old infants showed more deficits in sensory gating. The reasons for these relationships requires further investigation.
Choline is a nutrient found in liver, muscle meats, fish, nuts, and eggs, and it may help. In a 2013 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Ross and colleagues showed that the supplement phosphatidylcholine (which converts to choline), taken during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy (at doses of 6300 mg/day, the equivalent of about three eggs) and followed up with 700 mg/day in the infant, led to improvements in sensory gating in the infants. These infants went on to have fewer behavioral problems as toddlers.
Ross and colleagues suggest that pre- and post-natal choline supplementation may be able to reverse the effects of maternal anxiety on infants. The researchers believe it could be helpful in the prevention of schizophrenia, as insufficient cerebral inhibition (decreased sensory gating) is a characteristic of that illness as well.