The nutrient choline makes brain cells larger and faster when given in utero, suggesting that by supplementing their diets with the nutrient women could enhance their children’s lifelong learning and memory.

The findings build upon behavioral studies in which choline improved learning and memory in animals, say researchers from Duke University Medical Center and the Durham VA Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.

“Previous studies at Duke have shown that choline-supplemented animals are smarter and have a greater learning capacity, but we hadn’t known until now whether the cells that make up memory-relevant brain circuits are changed by choline,” says researcher Qiang Li. “Choline didn’t just change the general environment of the brain, it changed the fundamental building blocks of brain circuits—the cells themselves.”

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