Caudill researches the effects of the essential nutrient choline on fetal development and child growth.
Anyone who has ever held a relative’s baby knows there are usually two types: the ones who can be passed around, smiling and giggling, and the ones who scream and cry once separated from their mothers. According to Prof. Marie Caudill, nutritional sciences, the reason for this difference may lie in the placental environment in which the baby developed.
Caudill researches the effects of the essential nutrient choline on fetal development and child growth. She is internationally recognized for her studies with folate and choline and recently presented her research at an international conference held at the University of Leipzig in Germany.
Choline is sometimes considered the unknown essential nutrient, because although the body does not produce it and not many people have heard of it, it is needed for good health. Choline is typically grouped with the B vitamins, although it doesn’t technically meet the definition of a B vitamin. In the body, choline serves three main functions. First, it is required to make the phospholipid phosphatidylcholine.
“Phosphatidylcholine is a component of all cell membranes that is required for proper cell functioning,” Caudill said.
“During pregnancy, large amounts of phosphatidylcholine are needed to support the rapidly dividing cells of the developing fetus, which increases the mother’s dietary requirement for choline.”she said said.
In addition to making phospholipids, Choline plays an integral part in neurotransmission in its acetylcholine form. Acetylcholine is involved in memory and learning.
“Many studies involving rodents have shown that giving mom more choline during her pregnancy improves the cognitive ability of her offspring throughout their entire lifespan,” Caudill said.
Although choline may be taken by adults, the amount of choline that one is exposed to while still in the placenta has a stronger effect over time according to Caudill.
Choline’s third function is to modulate levels of stress. The apprehension and anxiety characteristic of stress is often caused by a steroid hormone called cortisol.
The release of cortisol is the end product of what is known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. The hypothalamus, in the lower part of the brain, produces the neurotransmitter corticotrpin-releasing hormone, which then travels to the anterior pituitary gland. CRH stimulates the anterior pituitary gland to release another hormone, known as adrenocorticotropic hormone, which in turn travels to the adrenal cortex via the blood circulation.
The adrenal cortex, which is located on top of the kidney, is directly releases cortisol. Once released, cortisol mediates the metabolic increases of the stress response.
“Data from my research group showed that giving pregnant women more choline lowered circulating levels of cortisol in her baby,” Caudill said. “The lower circulating cortisol in babies born to the mothers consuming extra choline suggests that HPA activity and reaction to stress may be lower in these babies. While the long-term consequences of our finding are unknown, others have reported a reduction in anxiety, improved learning and memory and a lower risk of stress-related diseases like hypertension among offspring with lower HPA axis activity.”
According to Caudill, the key to choline’s effect on the HPA axis lies in how choline affects the methylation state of placental DNA, which are the points at which DNA sequences have attached methyl groups.
“The mechanism by which extra choline influences cortisol production relates to its role as a methyl donor,” Caudill said. “We found that giving mom more choline increased the number of methyl groups and lowered the expression of genes involved in regulating the amount of cortisol produced by the HPA axis. We also found that giving mom more choline during pregnancy increased the number of methyl groups across the entire DNA sequence in the placenta which may improve genome stability and placental function”
Despite its integral part in fetal development, choline is not widely sought after as an essential nutrient during pregnancy, even though sources of choline are widely available. Some sources include egg yolks, beef, pork, legumes, and chicken, as well as broccoli and brussel sprouts.
“In the future, we’d like to see if choline may be used in a therapeutic way to lower the heightened activity of the HPA axis among babies born to mothers who experience stress, anxiety and depression during pregnancy,” Caudill said.
“We’d also like to see if consuming extra choline during pregnancy may be helpful in improving placental function and enhancing cognitive abilities in the human offspring.”
Caudill’s research may provide additional tools for fetal programming, or the changing of the placental environment to selectively affect the fetus. Further research with choline may help make smarter, happier and healthier babies. More results of Dr. Caudill's finding will soon be published in The Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.