Developmental Psychiatry Research Group

Developmental Psychiatry Research in the news

Extra Choline May Help Pregnant Women Decrease Negative Effects of COVID-19 on Their Newborns

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The Developmental Psychiatry Research Lab focuses on the relationships between fetal brain development, early infant and child behavioral and psychophysiological measures, and risk for later mental illnesses such schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. While contributing to mental illness prevention strategies is our ultimate goal, we also strive to contribute to early intervention strategies. Our lab is located in the Anschutz Health and Sciences Building on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

Our current research focuses on the dietary supplement called phosphatidylcholine (PC) and its potential to improve early brain development in children whose mothers were given the supplement during pregnancy. PC is a form of choline, also called Vitamin B4 or Vitamin J. Choline is a naturally occurring substance that has been identified as an essential nutrient by The Institute of Medicine. It is good for normal growth everywhere in the body, including the brain. Foods such as milk, liver and eggs are good food sources of choline.

Although most people get enough choline in the foods they eat, the need for choline is greater in pregnant women as their babies are rapidly developing new cells. During pregnancy, women increase production of choline within their body, and when combined with the choline they get from their diet, most pregnant women have enough choline for their babies to grow normally. However, some babies may benefit from having their mothers consume additional PC to fill any gaps. Our research is looking to see if PC supplementation is helpful in the long-term development of children.

In order to answer the bigger questions regarding the benefits to child development of additional PC during prenatal development, our research is asking the following questions along the way:

· What is the impact of genetics, nutrition, and environment on fetal brain development?

· What parts of the brain are associated with an increased risk for mental illnesses?

· How does a mother’s stress level during and after pregnancy impact fetal brain development?

· How does maternal infection during pregnancy affect fetal brain development?

· How is development different between the group of mothers taking the PC supplement and the group of mothers who do not?

· How do we measure brain changes as a child ages?

· Can we use the answers to these questions to devise new and better treatments for different mental illnesses (e.g. schizophrenia)?

· Can we find ways to decrease the number of people who get these major mental illnesses?

To answer these questions, we need the help of pregnant women and their families; being able to collect information during pregnancy through early childhood is key. We need families that span the spectrum: those with no family history of major psychiatric illnesses, those with a family history or individual diagnosis of major psychiatric illnesses, and those in between.

1. Hunter SK, Freedman R, Law AJ, et al. Maternal corticosteroids and depression during gestation and decreased fetal heart rate variability. Neuroreport. 2021;32(14):1170-1174. doi:10.1097/WNR.00000000000017

2. Hunter SK, Hoffman MC, McCarthy L, et al. Black American Maternal Prenatal Choline, Offspring Gestational Age at Birth, and Developmental Predisposition to Mental Illness. Schizophr Bull. 2021;47(4):896-905. doi:10.1093/schbul/sbaa171

3. Hoffman MC, Freedman R, Law AJ, Clark AM, Hunter SK. Maternal nutrients and effects of gestational COVID-19 infection on fetal brain development. Clin Nutr ESPEN. 2021;43:1-8. doi:10.1016/j.clnesp.2021.04.019

4. Hunter SK, Hoffman MC, D'Alessandro A, et al. Maternal prenatal choline and inflammation effects on 4-year-olds' performance on the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence-IV. J Psychiatr Res. 2021;141:50-56. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2021.06.037

5. Hoffman MC, Hunter SK, D'Alessandro A, Noonan K, Wyrwa A, Freedman R. Interaction of maternal choline levels and prenatal Marijuana's effects on the offspring. Psychol Med. 2020;50(10):1716-1726. doi:10.1017/S003329171900179X

6. Ross RG, Hunter SK, Hoffman MC, et al. Perinatal Phosphatidylcholine Supplementation and Early Childhood Behavior Problems: Evidence for CHRNA7 Moderation [published correction appears in Am J Psychiatry. 2016 Jul 1;173(7):735]. Am J Psychiatry. 2016;173(5):509-516. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2015.15091188

7. Ross AS, Hunter SK, Groth MA, Ross RG. P50 sensory gating in infants. J Vis Exp. 2013;(82):50065. Published 2013 Dec 26. doi:10.3791/50065


Psychiatry (SOM)

CU Anschutz

Anschutz Health Sciences Building

1890 N Revere Ct

Suite 4003

Mail Stop F546

Aurora, CO 80045


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