Choline is an essential nutrient for all animals, including humans. Prenatal and early postnatal supplementation with choline has been shown to enhance long-term cognitive performance, improve motor deficits in a mouse model of Rett syndrome, and reduce the adverse effects of neonatal alcohol exposure in rodents.
Tiffany Mellott and her colleagues at Boston University School of Medicine found that prenatal supplementation with choline in rodents activates signaling proteins critical for learning and memory, and alters gene expression patterns throughout life. It also increases levels of multiple neurotrophic factors in the hippocampus — a key brain region for learning and memory.
In addition, they found that prenatal choline supplementation increases the formation of new hippocampal neurons in adult mice and protects the hippocampus from seizure-induced damage.
Mellott’s group also examined the effects of perinatal — both prenatal and early postnatal — choline supplementation on social behavior, anxiety and repetitive behaviors in animal models of autism. They found that it significantly reduces the frequency of repetitive digging behavior in a marble-burying test in model mice. Supplementation with dietary choline also increases the mice’s time spent in open arms in the ‘elevated plus maze,’ indicating reduced anxiety.
Choline supplementation has no effect on movement or level of activity, the researchers found. Although it does not alter social interaction in control mice, it significantly increases the amount of time that autism model mice spend in social interaction. The effects of perinatal choline supplementation observed at 33 to 36 days after birth, and then again at 89 to 91 days after birth, show that the benefits of supplementation can persist long after dietary choline returns to control levels.
Mellott’s lab is currently examining the mechanism by which choline supplementation improves behavioral deficits. The researchers are also trying to identify a biomarker that would link choline availability during early development with social interaction performance.
The results of Mellott’s study suggest that the availability of choline during early development can prevent or reduce deficits in social behavior and anxiety in a genetic mouse model of autism. This may lead to a novel strategy for the treatment or prevention of autism spectrum disorders.