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Choline for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders?

Posted Jun 10 2010 4:39pm

Common supplement may reduce cell death in pregnancies.

A common dietary supplement markedly decreases defects in the skull and brain formation of  lab mice born to mothers exposed to alcohol, say researchers at the Medical College of Georgia.

Among the grisly list of potential effects caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy, one involves a relatively obscure lipid called ceramide. Ceramide can markedly increase the rate of programmed cell death—a process known as apoptosis—and may be involved in the characteristic cranial defects seen in fetal alcohol syndrome.

In the study, 25 % of the mouse embryos exposed to alcohol showed characteristic defects in skull development, including diminished growth in the multi-layered membrane—the meninges--covering the brain.  Biochemists Erhard Bieberich and Guanghu Wang, in an article ResearchBlogging.org published in Cell Death and Disease , found that the supplement CDP-choline decreased cell death and protected the fetal cranium from damage due to maternal drinking episodes. According to Dr. Bierberich in a press release from the Medical College of Georgia, the result of alcohol on pregnancy is “a snowball effect. The neural crest is damaged, the meninges doesn’t develop properly and tissue like bone and brain that are regulated by the meninges don’t develop properly either.”

Choline is a precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. In addition, it has been known for decades that alcohol increases choline requirements. Choline is already added to some baby formulas and prenatal vitamins. Choline’s effects on stroke and traumatic brain injury are also being investigated.

A similar discovery twenty years ago concerning folic acid led the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) to recommend that all women thinking of becoming pregnant should consume supplemental folic acid daily in order to reduce their risk of having a pregnancy affected by spina bifida or other neural tube defects. The rate of occurrence of this kind of birth defect has been dropping ever since.

The researchers believe that “there is just a little window” four weeks after conception—while neural cells are forming numerous organs--when the alcohol-related cranial damage is likely to occur. Unfortunately, this window of disaster opens before many women have discovered that they are pregnant. 

Since warnings about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy are either not known or are ignored in many cases, researchers are always on the lookout for medications that could be given after exposure to alcohol--or even after birth of a baby to an alcoholic mother.  As early as 2005, researchers at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu demonstrated that adding choline to the pre-natal diet of pregnant alcoholic rats suppressed physiological symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome in the offspring. In a press release from the American Physiological Society, lead researcher John Claybaugh asserted that the results “are consistent with the hypothesis that supplemental dietary choline fed to the pregnant dam can prevent the alcohol-induced partial diabetes insipidus seen in the young adult offspring.”

The American Psychological Association, in the wake of a 2007 study published in Behavioral Neuroscience , announced that “giving choline to infants who were exposed in the womb to alcohol may mitigate some of the resulting problems” related to learning, attention, and motor skills. The researchers gave choline to rat pups exposed to alcohol during the third trimester. Alcohol-related hyperactivity and learning deficits decreased, the researchers say. “The data suggest that early dietary interventions may reduce the severity of some fetal alcohol effects, even when administered after birth."

 Despite such optimism, the issue is whether a choline supplement would be capable of rescuing cells after alcohol exposure, or whether choline would need to be taken ahead of time as a supplement.

What is not at issue is that pregnant women should not drink, and should be aware that fetal damage can occur very early in a pregnancy.

Graphics Credit: http://www.cholineinfo.org/

Wang, G., & Bieberich, E. (2010). Prenatal alcohol exposure triggers ceramide-induced apoptosis in neural crest-derived tissues concurrent with defective cranial development Cell Death and Disease, 1 (5) DOI: 10.1038/cddis.2010.22
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