KANNAPOLIS- Prenatal diets lacking in choline—an essential nutrient that is part of all cell membranes— form fewer blood vessels in the brains of developing fetuses, according to a mouse study by UNC Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) scientists.

These findings, published in the journal, “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” could be of great importance to women. According to NRI Director Steven Zeisel, MD, PhD, “most pregnant women in the United States have diets that are choline deficient – only 14% of expecting mothers in the US are eating enough choline in their diet.” Pregnant women with the lowest amount of choline are four times more likely to have babies with birth defects than are women who eat the most. Choline-rich foods include milk, egg yolks, soybeans, beef, chicken, peanuts, wheat germ, flax seeds, sesame seeds, potatoes, cauliflower, lentils, and oats.

To test whether choline directly affects fetal blood vessel formation, Zeisel, and colleagues fed choline-deficient and control diets to pregnant mice and then examined the brains of the pups. The researchers report that choline-deficient fetal mice had fewer hippocampal blood vessels than the control group that were fed a normal diet. In addition, the choline-deficient diet correlated to high levels of two growth factors that regulate new blood vessel formation.

This research complements previous studies that link low choline in diet to a decreased production of nerve cells in the brain of fetal mice, caused because choline regulates the genes that make stem cells divide.