The typical diet in The Gambia contains one-third the amount of choline found in the typical diet in the United States. Considering that many Americans don’t eat enough choline, which is an essential nutrient, an intervention in The Gambia could have profound health benefits for mothers and their children.
UNC’s Steven Zeisel has teamed up with Andrew Prentice, a world leader in international nutrition, to develop a diet for pregnant Gambian mothers and to study how an increase in choline helps babies. Zeisel’s project just got a boost from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Choline, which is similar to B vitamins, strengthens cell membranes and protects the liver from accumulating fat. Zeisel has proven that choline aids neurotransmitter development in the brain. A key time for that development is while babies are still in the womb. For women in the United States, where choline-rich foods (link) are plentiful and easily attainable, Zeisel recommends that expecting mothers eat a little extra choline.
In poor countries, such as The Gambia, it’s more difficult for mothers to get all the nutrients they need. And some pregnant women require more choline than other expecting mothers due to genetics and variations in their seasonal diets.
Before Zeisel’s researchers head to Gambia, they’ll create methods for testing infant memory, which is a good indicator of brain development. They’ll test solar-powered instruments for studying infant brainwaves with the goal of using those tools in the field.
Zeisel’s team will also conduct a study to determine which Gambian women require especially high amounts of choline because of their genetic makeup.
Without Zeisel’s coordinated studies, it would be hard to figure out the proper amount of choline intake for each study participant. Too much of the nutrient can have detrimental effects, such as low blood pressure and diarrhea.
The data from these studies will help Zeisel’s team design and put in place a diet so that Gambian women and their children—as well as women and children around the world—get proper amounts of choline. Once the intervention is established, the researchers will assess the effects the nutrient has on infant brain development.