Choline Supplements May Improve Learning and 

Memory in People With Prenatal Alcohol Exposure

FASD: Knot Alone Volume 2, Issue 3 2005 

A Quarterly Publication of the SAMHSA Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Center for Excellence

Researchers studying therapies for FASD have found that choline supplements may help. Dr. Jennifer Thomas, a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) grantee, and colleagues at San Diego State University are studying the effects of choline on several alcohol-induced behavior problems. In their study, choline decreased hyperactivity in alcohol-exposed rats. It also improved spatial and working memory.

Choline is essential for normal function of all cells. In the body, choline is an integral part of the lipid bilayer of cell membranes. It is also a component of the myelin sheath that surrounds nerve fibers. Choline is needed for the synthesis of acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is an important neurotransmitter involved in memory storage and muscle control. Adequate choline intake is crucial during pregnancy to ensure that the fetal brain and memory function develop properly.

Several NIAAA-supported researchers have shown that prenatal alcohol exposure changes how body systems use acetylcholine. Many problems seen in persons with an FASD are consistent with damage to the cholinergic system of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is an area of the brain that modulates learning and memory. Alcohol effects include:
    * Hyperactivity
    * Passive avoidance deficits (difficulty learning to avoid behaviors with negative consequences)
    * Impairments in spatial and working memory

Recent research has shown that choline supplements in the perinatal period of normal rats can improve a number of cognitive tasks that rely on acetylcholine system. Thus, Dr. Thomas reasoned that choline supplements might be an effective treatment for persons with a FASD. In her study, pregnant rats were given ethanol throughout gestation. The offspring showed deficits in a spatial memory discrimination task when tested as adults. When choline was given during the early postnatal period, alcohol-exposed offspring performed as well as animals not exposed to alcohol.

The studies were extended to test the effects of choline supplements on behavior after exposure to alcohol during the brain growth spurt, equivalent to the human third trimester. Choline effectively reduced hyperactivity and improved performance on a serial spatial discrimination reversal task. However, choline treatment had no effect on alcohol-induced deficits in motor balance and coordination. Choline’s effects may only reduce cognitive deficits and behavior problems related to hippocampal dysfunction. Dr. Thomas continues to study the effectiveness of choline intervention at different time periods and on other tasks related to deficits seen in persons with an FASD.

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