Prenatal Prevention of Psychiatric Illness with Nutritional Supplements

April 15, 2019 · Posted in Potential Treatments · Comment 

pregnant woman with a pillIn a 2018 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry, researcher Robert Freedman and colleagues shared the results of a systematic review of data on nutritional supplements during pregnancy for the primary prevention of psychiatric illness in the child. Freedman and colleagues concluded that the evidence is robust that prenatal folic acid supplementation plus multivitamins not only can prevent birth defects such as cleft palate, spina bifida, and microcephaly, but also social withdrawal, decreased attention, and aggression at age 18 months. They wrote, “Supplements of up to 4 mg [of folic acid] before 12 weeks gestation have been found to be safe and effective.”

The effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation depended on when the supplements were taken. Taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements early in pregnancy was linked to an increase in schizophrenia and more symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the offspring. However, supplementation after 20 weeks of pregnancy decreased preterm delivery, low birth weight, and asthma.

As of 2017, choline supplementation during pregnancy is recommended by the American Medical Association. Their recommendation is based on research in which the choline precursor phosphatidylcholine (5,000-6,300 mg/day) was given to mothers beginning in the 18th week of pregnancy and continued in the newborn for two weeks to three months after birth in the form of 100mg of liquid phosphatidylcholine. This supplementation regimen normalized the P50 auditory evoked potential, a measure of inhibitory sensory gating that is abnormal in patients with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and infants whose parents had psychosis, depression, or smoked (all risk factors for a later diagnosis of schizophrenia).

Healthy individuals show a reduced response to an auditory cue when it is repeated 50 milliseconds after the initial cue. In people with schizophrenia, response to the repeated cue is not suppressed. Not only did the P50 auditory evoked potential normalize with phosphatidylcholine supplementation, but at 3.5 years of age, those who received phosphatidylcholine supplements in utero and as newborns had fewer problems with attention and social interactions. The findings were even more robust in those with the CHRNA7 genotype (a genetic variation in the alpha 7 nicotinic receptor), which is a risk factor for schizophrenia.

Supplementation with vitamins A and D during gestation also decreased the risk for schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders in offspring. Recommendations include Vitamin D at doses of 600 to 4,000 IU for pregnant mothers and 400 to 1,000 IU for infants. Because of potential toxicity, vitamin A should be limited to 8,000 units from diet and supplements combined. (Supplements typically contain 2,500 units.)

While there are some methodological limitations to the findings, Freedman and colleagues conclude, “As part of comprehensive maternal and fetal care, prenatal nutrient interventions should be further considered as uniquely effective first steps in decreasing risk for future psychiatric and other illnesses in newborn children.”

Editor’s Note: Given the high risk of psychiatric illness (74%) in the offspring of a parent with bipolar disorder and the finding of abnormal P50 auditory evoked potential in patients with bipolar disorder, the recommended nutritional supplements should be given special consideration during gestation of a child who has a parent with bipolar disorder. According to the 2018 article by Freedman and colleagues, this would include folate, phosphatidylcholine, vitamin A and vitamin D.