The list of supplements a mother should take during pregnancy reads like the ingredient list for that crime-fighting kindergarten trio, the Powerpuff Girls: “Sugar and spice and everything nice…” Pregnant women supplement their diet with folic acid for their children’ brains, vitamin D for their children’s bones, iron for their children’s blood. Now, one more ingredient may be added to the list – phosphatidylcholine for social and attentive children with lower chances of mental illness later in life.
Phosphatidylcholine is a common component of many foods, including eggs, nuts, soybeans and certain vegetables. Currently, the US Institute of Medicine recommends pregnant women eat 450 mg of phosphatidylcholine every day. In a study published in the May issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers boosted the phosphatidylcholine intake to 3,600 mg every morning and 2,700 mg every evening - the equivalent of about three large eggs per day. At four months, the researchers surveyed the mothers about their babies’ social abilities and attention span. Children whose mothers received the higher dose of phosphatidylcholine were less socially withdrawn and inattentive – a result that previous studies show predicts lower rates of mental illnesses including schizophrenia, ADHD, and autism.
The study also finds that babies who have certain genetic predispositions to mental illness or have parents with history of anxiety, depression, or psychosis may particularly benefit from the boosted dose. Phosphatidylcholine supplementation made these at-risk babies less likely to show behavioral and brain changes consistent with future mental illness when compared to non-risk babies whose mothers did not take extra phosphatidylcholine.
Previous studies show that the brains of children at risk for schizophrenia over-react to certain sounds while asleep. The same research group showed in a past study that children of mothers who took high levels of phosphatidylcholine were less likely to over-react to sound during rest, which suggests these children may be at lower risk for later schizophrenia. The researchers found the same pattern of brain changes in the present study, which indicates that a mother’s phosphatidylcholine intake during pregnancy can alter her babies’ brain activity in a way that predicts less likely mental illness in the future.
Physicians already recommend phosphatidylcholine during pregnancy based on its demonstrated necessity for brain formation and effect of decreasing birth complications. This new research suggests that, along with these previously recognized benefits, mothers can improve their children’s future mental health by supplementing their diet with higher amounts of phosphatidylcholine.
Those who are pregnant should wait before they rush to buy cartons of eggs packed with phosphatidylcholine, however. Forty-nine pregnant women participated in the research, and while this number is high enough to make the findings significant, researchers will need to follow up with a large-scale study with more mothers to confirm their results. Researchers must also track children from birth to adulthood to confirm that high dose phosphatidylcholine lowers rates of mental illness. Finally, researchers need to demonstrate that there are no side effects or other health concerns associated with high levels of phosphatidylcholine to either child or mother.
Although mental illness does not usually appear until adults are in their twenties, the research on high-dose phosphatidylcholine supplementation shows that the seeds of such illness may be sown as early as in the womb. For the Powerpuff girls, their ingredients of sugar, spice, and everything nice dictate their personalities and actions. For humans, it may not be so different-- the ingredients that go into human creation can influence lifetime mental well-being.
Cheatham CL, Goldman BD, Fischer LM, da Costa K, Reznick JS, and Zeisel SH. “Phosphatidylcholine supplementation in pregnant women consuming moderate-choline diets does not enhance infant cognitive function: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2012; 96(6): 1465-1472.
Institute of Medicine and National Academy of Sciences USA: Dietary Reference Intakes for Folate, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B12, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin, and Choline.Washington, DC, National Academies Press, 1998.
Ross RG, Hunter SK, Hoffman C, McCarthy L, Chambers BM, et al. “Perinatal Phosphatidylcholine Supplementation and Early Childhood Behavior Problems: Evidence for CHRNA7 Moderation.” American Journal of Psychiatry. 2016; 173(5): 509-516.
Ross RG, Hunter SK, McCarthy L, et al. “Perinatal choline effects on neonatal pathophysiology related to later schizophrenia risk.” American Journal of Psychiatry. 2013; 170: 290–298.
Zeisel SH. “Choline, Homocysteine, and Pregnancy.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2005; 82(4): 719-720.