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Ask Tufts Experts June 2017 Issue

Q. What is the target intake of choline to improve brain function? Can I get enough from diet only, or is a supplement advisable?

A. Tammy Scott, PhD, an assistant professor at the Friedman School and a scientist in Tufts' HNRCA Neuroscience and Aging Laboratory, says: "Choline is a nutrient with multiple links to brain health. It is needed for production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which plays an important role in attention, memory and muscle control. Choline is also essential for metabolism, cell health, gene expression and brain development.

"Humans can produce choline, but the amount is usually not sufficient (depending on factors such as age and genetics), so dietary intake of some choline is necessary. In the US, the most common sources of choline are meat, poultry, fish, dairy products and eggs. Cruciferous vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains also supply choline.

"The optimal target intake of choline to support brain health is not known. The current Adequate Intake (AI) for choline, developed by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Medicine, is 550 milligrams (mg) per day for adult men and 425 mg per day for adult women (non-pregnant and non-lactating). This AI, however, is based on the prevention of fatty liver disease (not brain health or cognition), and was derived from the results of one study.

"As with most nutrients, it’s best to stick with dietary (food) sources of choline rather than using supplements. And remember, more of a nutrient is not always better. While choline is an essential nutrient, results from our studies and others have suggested that excessive choline (unlikely from typical food intake) is related to a higher risk of cardiovascular (heart) disease, and perhaps certain types of cerebrovascular (brain) disease.

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