|Vol. 7, No. 2, 2001 Page 1&5|
Each year, thousands of babies suffer brain damage after being exposed to alcohol while in the womb. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE) cause physical, cognitive, and behavioral problems, and put affected individuals at high risk for academic failure, social failure, and delinquent and criminal behavior. A new report, however, suggests that early dietary intervention may ameliorate at least some of the long-term effects of alcohol exposure.
Jennifer Thomas and colleagues tested the effects of the B vitamin choline on the learning and memory of rat pups exposed to alcohol before birth. One group of alcohol-exposed rat pups received choline supplementation, a second received saline (also delivered through intubation, to control for the effects of the feeding method), and a third group received no intervention except for daily handling.
On the 45th day after birth, the pups' performance on a visual discrimination test was evaluated. Two control groups of non-alcohol-exposed rats, some of which also had received choline supplementation, also were tested.
The researchers report, "Ethanol-exposed subjects who were not treated neonatally with choline committed a significantly greater number of errors both during acquisition and during delayed discrimination training" compared to controls. In contrast, they say, the alcohol-exposed rats given choline performed as well as all groups of control rats on every aspect of the test.
"Importantly," the researchers say, "choline treatment was effective in reducing the severity of fetal alcohol effects even when treatment occurred after the alcohol exposure period." They conclude, "These data imply that nutritional interventions during the early post-natal period may be effective in reducing some adverse consequences of alcohol in children born to women who drank during pregnancy."
Thomas et al. say their research revealed that the beneficial effects of choline were due not to immediate effects of the nutrient but rather to long-term changes in the rats' brains.
In addition to improving memory and learning in alcohol-damaged infants, choline supplementation may be beneficial for infants in general. A recent study by S. H. Zeisel found that "when rat pups received choline supplements (in utero or during the second week of life), their brain function changed, resulting in lifelong memory enhancement." Zeisel's research indicates that maternal dietary choline levels affect development of the hippocampus, and he says, "these changes are so important that we can pick out the groups of animals whose mothers had extra choline even when these animals are elderly."
"Neonatal choline supplementation ameliorates the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on a discrimination learning task in rats," J. D. Thomas, M. H. La Fiette, V. R. Quinn, and E. P. Riley, Neurotoxicology and Teratology, Vol. 22, No. 5, September 2000, pp. 703-711. Address: Jennifer Thomas, Center for Behavioral Teratology, San Diego State University, Suite 209, 6363 Alvarado Court, San Diego, CA 92120.
"Choline: needed for normal development of memory," S. H. Zeisel, Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Vol. 19, No. 5(Suppl.), October 2000, pp. 528S-531S. Address: S. H. Zeisel, Department of Nutrition, School of Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7400.