Is it possible to reverse the cognitive deficits seen in children exposed to alcohol in the womb?
San Diego State University psychology professor Jennifer Thomas has made this question a central focus of her life’s work. Thomas led the team that first studied how the essential nutrient choline, plentiful in food like eggs and liver, may improve the cognitive and behavioral function of a fetus or infant whose brain is impaired from prenatal exposure to alcohol.
Now Thomas has received a prestigious National Institutes of Health (NIH) MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) award to research how exactly choline affects the development of the alcohol-exposed brain.
MERIT awards are given to productive researchers whose work the NIH deems “distinctly superior,” and who “are highly likely to continue to perform in an outstanding manner.”
The award guarantees several years of funding (typically up to a decade), allowing scientists to explore research paths they might not otherwise have the opportunity to investigate. Thomas’s initial award is for $1.7 million over five years.
There are approximately 450 active MERIT awards in total, and SDSU boasts four of them—a number that’s competitive with some of the most active research universities in the nation.
Children with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) suffer physical problems, poor growth, cognitive deficits and behavioral issues. Not all children affected by prenatal alcohol exposure have FAS, but some have a range of FAS-like symptoms in varying degrees that are described as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD).
Thomas’s research seeks to discover how choline works in the brain, to allow scientists to better understand its possible applications for improving outcomes for children with FASD.
The vast majority of the robust research on these disorders focuses on understanding the disorders, rather than developing a treatment.
“We’ve known since the 1970s that prenatal alcohol exposure can be damaging to the fetus,” Thomas explained. “Yet we still know relatively little, considering how many decades have gone by, on how we can treat kids and what we can do to minimize the effects.”
Thomas’s research shows that choline has a positive effect when delivered prenatally, and even when delivered after birth. The possibility of postnatal treatment is a promising one, Thomas explained.
“That’s what’s so exciting, because intervention may not necessarily be possible when a woman is drinking. You might not have the opportunity to intervene during the alcohol exposure time. But we may be able to intervene after the baby is born.”
Finding the mechanism
Certain areas of the brain, like the hippocampus, change throughout the course of life, something scientists call plasticity. Thomas plans to look at how choline affects plasticity, especially in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is important for learning and memory.
Despite years of research that establish a positive relationship between choline and memory, there remains a lot to learn about the nutrient and the mechanism it employs to influence cognition.
Choline has many different functions. It can transform from a nutrient into a neurotransmitter, a chemical that is essential to communication in the brain. It affects the membranes of cells in the brain. It also affects gene expression.
Given that choline is such a multi-faceted nutrient, Thomas’s research question is a fundamental one.
“Choline can lead to long-lasting improvements in behavioral and cognitive functioning,” Thomas said. “But what is choline actually doing? How is it affecting brain development to cause behavioral changes? We are trying to understand the mechanism.”
Brian Christie, a researcher with the University of Victoria, is working with Thomas on this endeavor.
Based on Thomas’s work, three research teams in the United States, South Africa and Ukraine are now conducting clinical trials on children with FASD with some promising preliminary results.