DURHAM, N.C. -- Pregnant rats fed extra doses of an essential nutrient called choline produced offspring whose brain circuits were "wired" to learn and remember far more efficiently than offspring without the supplement, according to a study at Duke University Medical Center.
Conversely, analysis of brain slices of the offspring of rats deprived of choline indicated a decrease in memory capability.
The researchers said it is the first time that a common food nutrient has been shown to cause permanent brain changes in regions responsible for learning and memory. The findings could have important implications -- especially for pregnant women and their children -- if choline proves to have the same memory-enhancing effect in humans, a theory for which considerable evidence already exists, the researchers said.
Choline is a naturally occurring amino acid found in egg yolks, milk, nuts, liver and other meats as well as in human breast milk. It is the essential building block for a memory-forming brain chemical called acetylcholine, and it plays a vital role in the formation of cell membranes throughout the body.
The Duke researchers found that brain circuits of choline-supplemented rats were built to accept and retain new information more efficiently than rats that received normal or substandard amounts of choline prenatally. And that memory enhancement endured until the rats were 4 months old -- the equivalent of early adulthood in humans.
Specifically, the research showed that choline enhanced a brain function called long-term potentiation (LTP), in which the act of receiving an electrical stimulus or "message" actually paves a pathway allowing future messages to reach the nerve cell more easily -- similar to the way that rain water creates a furrow through soil upon repeated downpours, enabling even a small trickle to find its way more easily.