Some mental disorders are linked to specific genes. But that does not mean a person with a certain gene is destined to develop that disorder. Healthy practices may decrease the risk.
A recent study offered some evidence that this may be the case for some babies who might be at risk of developing schizophrenia.
Researchers found that pregnant women taking choline supplements might be less likely to see their children develop schizophrenia.
Choline is a nutrient that can be found naturally in eggs, liver, muscle meats, fish and nuts.
The study was small and used a "substitute" for schizophrenia risk, so the topic requires more research.
The study, led by Randal G. Ross, MD, of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado Denver, investigated the link between a mother's choline intake during pregnancy and newborns' risk for schizophrenia.
The researchers included 100 women in their second trimester of pregnancy in the study. Half the women took 3,600 mg of choline supplement each morning and 2,700 mg of choline each night throughout their second and third trimesters.
The other half of the women took a placebo in the morning and evening. After their babies were born, the children of the mothers who took choline received 100 mg choline daily. The other children received a placebo.
When the babies were 33 days old, the researchers tested their brain responses to clicking sounds using sensors on the babies' heads.
One trait of schizophrenia relates to the way brain responds to certain sounds. A mentally healthy person's brain will detect a clicking sound the first time the sound is made, but the sound will not usually register in the brain at the same strength the second time it is made.
This type of brain response to sounds is something researchers can test in infants. An infant whose brain responds to both clicks equally may indicate a higher risk for developing schizophrenia.
Of the babies who had received choline supplements through their mother and after birth, 86 percent suppressed the second clicking sound, as a brain typically should.
Meanwhile, only 43 percent of the babies who did not receive choline suppressed the second click in their brains.
When the babies were tested at 13 weeks old, there was less difference between the groups: 76 percent of the babies receiving choline and 72 percent of the babies receiving a placebo suppressed the second sound.
However, the researchers then looked at which babies carried a gene known to be linked to schizophrenia. The babies who had this gene and received choline suppressed the second click in the way a typical brain should develop to do.
Yet the babies who had this gene and did not receive choline interpreted both clicks equally, indicating that their brains may not be developing typically.
The study is limited by the use of this "marker" to identify babies possibly at risk of schizophrenia. The results do not mean that a baby that did not respond in the "typical" way will definitely go on to develop schizophrenia.
This test is used as a stand-in to assess the likelihood of a baby's risk of developing schizophrenia.
"Basic research indicates that choline supplementation during pregnancy facilitates cognitive functioning in offspring," said co-author Robert Freedman, MD, in a statement about the study.
But he added that their findings require long-term follow-up research to determine whether choline supplements can help reduce children's risk of developing schizophrenia.
There were no side effects or other adverse effects found in the women's health or during delivery related to the choline supplementation. There were also no observed negative side effects in the children who received the extra choline.
The study was published January 15 in the American Journal of Psychiatry. The research was funded by the Institute for Children's Mental Disorders, the Anschutz Family Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Elaine Schlosser Lewis Fund. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.