Infection during pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of the child developing a mental illness, including serious mental illness such as schizophrenia.
New research highlighted this month by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (BBRF) indicates that higher choline levels, an essential nutrient in the human body that plays an important role in brain development during pregnancy, may be protective against such infections in expectant mothers.
Based in Denver, Colorado, the study authors analyzed relevant health information for 136 women throughout their pregnancy. Researchers then conducted medical tests on the newborn child at one and three months after birth. A sample of the mothers had developed an infection before the 16th week of pregnancy in the second trimester.
The study authors set out to answer if choline levels in pregnant women influenced the brain function of children whose mothers experienced an infection during their second trimester. It was hypothesized that higher choline levels during pregnancy may have a protective role against the potential adverse effects on the fetus of an immune response due to an infection in the mother.
To examine this, researchers used a common test given to newborn children to measure cerebral inhibition. An important step in fetal brain development that occurs just before birth is that the brain develops the ability to control excitatory brain activity and prevent brain hyperactivity. Brain hyperactivity is thought to play a role in mental illness, including schizophrenia. Research suggests that choline may play an important role in building the inhibitory capability of the newborn brain.
The authors found that pregnant mothers who had higher levels of choline in their blood gave birth to children that did significantly better on the brain inhibition tests than mothers who had lower levels of choline. The results indicate that choline may play an important role in fetal brain development and has the potential for long-term effects on the child, according to the authors.
The authors argue for vitamin supplements for pregnant women to contain choline at much higher levels than are currently available. “infections during pregnancy, including the flu and respiratory illness, can happen to any woman, and these infections predispose the offspring to future mental illness,” according to the study author on BBRF’s blog. “Choline supplementation offers a way for mothers to protect their unborn children from this unforeseeable and often unpreventable risk.”