March 13, 2004

Perinatal functional food: the slippery slope towards health

New Scientist recently reported that giving pregnant rats choline enhanced memory performance of their children.

This is not new; studies have shown the beneficial effects of prenatal choline supplements earlier. The news is that it was apparently due to bigger and more active hippocampal cells.

The study is Dietary Prenatal Choline Supplementation Alters Postnatal Hippocampal Structure and Function (Qiang Li, Shirley Guo-Ross, Darrell V. Lewis, Dennis Turner, Aaron M. White, Wilkie A. Wilson and H. Scott Swartzwelder, J Neurophysiol 91: 1545-1555, 2004.

That issue also has one of the funniest editorial titles I've seen in a while: Homeland Defense Begins in Precentral Cortex, about sensorimotor integration for defensive behavior).

Earlier work on prenatal choline was mainly due to Warren H. Meck and his team:

Meck, Warren H., Smith, Rebecca A., Williams, Christina L., Organizational Changes in Cholinergic Activity and Enhanced Visuospatial Memory as a Function of Choline Administered Prenatally or Postnatally or Both, Behavioral Neuroscience, 1989, 103: 6, 1234--1241

Meck, Warren H., Smith, Rebecca A., Williams, Christina L., Pre- and Postnatal Choline Supplementation Produces Long-rerm Facilitation of Spatial Memory, Developmental Psychobiology, 1987, 21:4, 339--353

Garner, Sanford C., Mar, Mei-Heng, Zeisel, Steven H., Choline Distribution and Metabolism in Pregnant Rats and Fetuses Are Influenced by the Choline Content of the Maternal Diet, J. Nutrition, 1995, 125: 11, Nov, 2851--2858

W. H. Meck and C. L. Williams, Perinatal choline supplementation increases the threshold for chunking in spatial memory, Neuroreport, 8:14, 3053--9, Sep 29,

W. H. Meck and C. L. Williams, Characterization of the facilitative effects of perinatal choline supplementation on timing and temporal memory, Neuroreport, 8:13, 2831--5, Sep 8, 1997

It seems plausible this works in humans too. The interesting question this raises is of course whether having mothers eat "healthy" choline-producing food is ethically the same as using biotechnology to achieve bigger brained children. Just as for playing Mozart to the foetus, it seems that the low-tech aspects of the treatment will make people accept it. But the arguments given by Fukuyama et al. against reproductory medicine as reducing human self-determination by manipulating one's ontogenesis seem to hold here too. The child would be "doomed" to have better memory regardless of how much he or she would subscribe to ideas that ignorance is bliss.

Of course, one might argue that here one simply enhances a natural biological health mechanism, but if one accepts that then one ought to accept activating that mechanism through any other means. As well as activating every single such health mechanism - which would presumably produce a child that was much healthier than normal children would ever be by chance.

I think perinatal functional food might become a big thing. Adding the right fatty acids to breast milk substitutes have been shown to enhance cognitive function in infants, and people are exploring probiotics for infants and various supplements for the mother to inhibit development disorders. In many ways this might be the soft sell of human enhancement. It is natural enough to make even the harshest critic of human enhancement quiet, while being both simple and under the control of parents.

Posted by Anders at March 13, 2004 08:45 PM

Of course, one thing to consider is whether the memory enhancement is free of side effects. For example, the genetic memory enhancement of Tsien et al. in mice produced mice able to learn better, but also more sensitive to certain kinds of pain. The mechanism here is very different, but it is not unreasonable to think that aspects of personality, perception and attention could be affected by changes in acetylcholine receptors. It seems likely that the side effects of prenatal choline are subtle rather than any obvious malformation or mental problem.

If, for example, a choline-enriched hippocampus predisposes towards religious or mystical thinking, is that a problem and an ethical reason to avoid giving choline supplements? (the irony here is of course that pro-enhancement transhumanists are often rather anti-religious and would see it as more of a problem than the average person). My answer would be that such a change in predisposition is just as acceptable as any other change in predisposition; as long as the possibilities of living a good life (as experienced by onself) are not diminished they are acceptable. Freedom has not been diminished significantly, especially since such predispositions can be expressed in an infinite number of personal ways. One can become rapt with the mysteries of neuroscience just as well as conventional religion, or ignore one's tendency towards seeing transcendent meaning by integrating it into everyday life.

But the problem remains that some of the drawbacks and changes are subtle and slow to develop. It is not inconceivable that prenatal chemical signals affect brain organisation that emerge in adolescence (some models of homosexuality involve this).

Most likely safety testing in the traditional way cannot be done, but we need to make retrospective studies of what mothers ate during pregnancy. Which is of course very hard, who remembers every piece of icecream eaten and what it contained?

A solution might be to actually do total monitoring as an experiment: have mothers document everything they eat and do (through wearables and lab doggybags) and then do a longitudinal study of child development. Expensive, slow and cumbersome - but also an academic and medical goldmine. Who knows what questions will be asked in 10 or 20 years that can be studied using this kind of data?

Of course, the deep irony is that monitoring the mother and then making follow-up tests and studies of the children is going to be far more invasive and character-affecting than most plausible prenatal food interventions.

Posted by: Anders at March 13, 2004 10:54 PM

Sadly, these distinctions will largely go unrecognized, I think. The fine line between modification, enhancement, and health care in a functional sense is not as apparent to people who are arriving at their opinions from a reactive, emotional base.

The concept of heath care as 'normalization' is still pervasive, and prenatal supplementation, will be presented or analyzed as preventing malnutritional defects, rather than introducing supernormal development. So the distinction between such 'increases' and real augmentation will still be firm, if not well founded.

It is instructive to remember one of my favorite quotes here, "one cannot reason someone out of a position they did not reason themselves into."

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