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Study suggests this nutrient reduces harm in offspring of pregnant mice given alcohol

New research shows pregnant mice taking choline, an essential nutrient found in some multi-vitamins, results in fewer harmful effects of alcohol on their offspring — and researchers are now wondering what effects it could have on humans.

FASD consultant cautions choline may not be the magic wand to alleviate impacts of prenatal exposure in humans

A file photo of alcohol. In a recent study, female mice were given alcohol along with the nutrient choline during their pregnancies. The results show reduced damage in their offspring. (iStock)

New research shows pregnant mice taking choline, an essential nutrient found in some multivitamins, shows it reduced the damage of alcohol in their offspring — and researchers are now wondering what effects it could have on humans.

The research findings from the University of California, Riverside, were published in the journal Neuropharmacology and build on existing research on the potential benefits of choline supplementation.

In the study, female mice were given alcohol along with the nutrient during their pregnancies. The results show the outcomes associated with alcohol exposure, including abnormal brain and behavioural development, were reduced in their offspring.

"It's having an effect in this animal model. The question is, what kind of effect is it going to have on humans?" said Kelly Huffman, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and a co-author of the paper. 

So choline, yes it might help. But what about what comes before that?- Nathalie Brassard, FASCETS Canada West facilitator

"We still see a lot of women drinking during pregnancy. It's not just alcoholism that's driving it. That is true in some cases and I think for those women, something like choline could possibly be beneficial," Huffman said.

She pointed out it's still too early for health professionals to recommend a choline supplement for pregnant mothers without first demonstrating the benefits to humans, though she hopes her research will lead to more studies to answer that more definitely.

But because drinking during pregnancy can cause a range of impacts to the brain and body of individuals, she said the effect might be milder.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is estimated to affect up to four per cent of Canadians and is recognized as one of the leading known causes of developmental disability in the western world, according to the Canada FASD Research Network.

Health Canada advises that no amount of alcohol during pregnancy is safe.

'We have to be very careful': FASD consultant

But a FASD consultant cautions that if women do drink, choline may not be the magic wand to alleviate the impacts of prenatal exposure to alcohol.

"We have to be very careful with targeting a specific group," said Nathalie Brassard, a facilitator with FASCETS Canada West, a non-profit organization that provides consultation on FASD.

She says choline may become a widely encouraged supplement for women during pregnancy, akin to folic-acid. But there is a bigger picture.

Nathalie Brassard, FASD consultant and facilitator with FASCETS Canada West, said choline may not be the magic wand to alleviate the impacts of prenatal exposure to alcohol. (Walter Strong/CBC)

"To me, we always need to take a step back and say we're trying to address something that has a causal effect. So we should look at the cause. And it's alcohol consumption," Brassard said.

"It's not a women's issue, it's a society issue. We need to look at our consumption as a society and be there for those who consume and be there to support them. We need to have that conversation with everybody and not just a few.

"So choline, yes it might help. But what about what comes before that?"

Brassard said the current conversation around alcohol and pregnancy is targeted "to a group of people that we have decided as a society is more likely to drink.

"But in doing so, we are missing counselling a lot of women who can use the information," she said. "So there is a vast number of parents and people in our society who don't think this conversation is about them, yet alcohol is omnipresent."