Taking a nutrient called choline during pregnancy could "super-charge" children's brains for life, suggests a study in rats.
Offspring born to pregnant rats given the supplement were known to be faster learners with better memories. But the new work, by Scott Swartzwelder and colleagues at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina, US, shows this is due to having bigger brain cells in vital areas.
Previous studies have shown that the offspring of rats fed choline have better memories and their cognitive function does not decay as rapidly as they age.
Eggs are a good source of choline. For a chart on choline food sources see my previous posts Choline May Restore Middle Aged Memory Formation. For more on choline's effects down at the level of genetic regulation see my post Nutrients Change Embryonic DNA Methylation, Risk Of Disease.
In the current study, the researchers explored the effects of choline on neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region that is critical for learning and memory. They fed pregnant rats extra amounts of choline during a brief but critical window of pregnancy, then studied how their hippocampal neurons differed from those of control rats.
The researchers found that hippocampal neurons were larger, and they possessed more tentacle-like "dendrites" that reach out and receive signals from neighboring neurons.
"Having more dendrites means that a neuron has more surface area to receive incoming signals," said Scott Swartzwelder, Ph.D., senior author of the study and a neuropsychologist at Duke and the Durham VA Medical Center. "This could make it easier to push the neuron to the threshold for firing its signal to another neuron." When a neuron fires a signal, it releases brain chemicals called "neurotransmitters" that trigger neighboring neurons to react. As neurons successively fire, one to the next, they create a neural circuit that can process new information, he said.
Not only were neurons structured with more dendrites, they also "fired" electrical signals more rapidly and sustained their firing for longer periods of time, the study showed. The neurons also rebounded more easily from their resting phase in between firing signals. These findings complement a previous study by this group showing that neurons from supplemented animals were less susceptible to insults from toxic drugs that are known to kill neurons.
Collectively, these behaviors should heighten the neurons' capacity to accept, transmit and integrate incoming information, said Swartzwelder.
"We've seen before that the brains of choline-supplemented rats have a greater plasticity -- or an ability to change and react to stimuli more readily than normal rats -- and now we are beginning to understand why," he said.
|Share |||Randall Parker, 2004 March 12 11:11 AM Brain Enhancement|