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Can a simple nutrient improve learning and IQ in kids with FASD?

Jeffrey Wozniak, Ph.D., L.P., hopes that the nutrient choline may help children on the FASD spectrum with “executive functions” such as planning, organizing, and decision-making. (Photo: Jim Bovin)

A nutrient found in eggs, beef liver, breast milk, and cauliflower could help mitigate the effects of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)—and new research at the University of Minnesota exploring that potential may have implications far beyond FASD.

Pediatric neuropsychologist Jeffrey Wozniak, Ph.D., L.P., is studying the possibility that choline, a relative of the B vitamins, may improve learning and IQ in children who have FASD.

Choline affects the hippocampus, an area of the brain that’s critical to new learning, Wozniak explains. Animal studies showed that choline optimized hippocampal development, increasing both cell size and the number of connections between cells.

Wozniak’s research aims to determine whether the nutrient could have the same effect in human children. Participants in the randomized, double-blind study—20 preschoolers receiving choline via a fruit-flavored drink mix and 20 others given a placebo—will be evaluated by staff at the University’s Center for Neurobehavioral Development. Along with coinvestigator Michael Georgieff, M.D., Wozniak will assess behavior and administer memory function tests. They’ll also examine changes in brain electrical activity.

The study is being conducted through the University’s nationally recognized FASD Program and International Adoption Clinic.

While not all children on the FASD spectrum are visibly affected, many struggle with “executive functions,” Wozniak explains. They may have trouble with judgment, planning, organizing, decision-making, behavior regulation, and learning, he says.

New MRI technology has shown “wiring” abnormalities in the brains of children exposed to alcohol prenatally. Particularly affected is the white matter, which forms the network for information distribution in the brain.

Wozniak’s endeavor was spurred by years of seeing dramatically affected patients in the clinic—and confronting the frustrating reality that current treatments aren’t very effective, he says. Standard FASD treatment often involves medication used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “That [approach] doesn’t always work that well. It doesn’t address the fact that they have these underlying brain abnormalities,” he says.

Wozniak calls the effort “the most interesting study I’ve been involved in.”

Besides potentially yielding a treatment for FASD, the study could help in treating myriad other afflictions as well, Wozniak says. “It’s unique, because what we’re talking about is not a drug treatment. This is a nutrient; you can’t put a patent on this.

“We’re talking about trying to alter the developmental trajectory in a permanent way.”

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