Nutrients for Neurotransmitters
The brain deploys a multitude of biochemicals to carry out its many cognitive tasks and make you happy, calm, alert, relaxed, energized, or motivated. Helping orchestrate every thought, feeling, and movement are the neurotransmitters, perhaps the best known of which is serotonin, whose functions include sleep regulation and anxiety reduction. Another key neurotransmitter is acetylcholine, essential in memory formation and maintenance. And count in dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, collectively called catecholamines, which control arousal and anxiety states.
Neurotransmitters are manufactured in the body from amino acids and other substances supplied by diet. Serotonin, for example, is manufactured from the amino acid tryptophan, which, like all other amino acids is found in protein- rich foods. Dopamine and norepinephrine are derived from the amino acid tyrosine (which in turn can be made from the amino acid phenylalanine). Acetylcholine is made from the fatlike B vitamin choline, found in egg yolks and organ meats.
Only recently has ongoing research begun to detail how neurotransmitters are assembled from the foods we eat, how they decline with age, disease, environmental stress, or suboptimal dietary patterns. And science is only at the dawn of recognizing how dietary components, consumed in foods or as vitamin-like supplements, may help restore healthy levels of neurotransmitters.
Creation and utilization of acetylcholine, so crucial to memory, is a complicated process dependent on numerous enzymes, hormones, and other neurotransmitters. Scientists do know that the devastation of Alzheimer's disease results from underproduction of acetylcholine due to death of the cholinergic neurons that make it.
So by consuming more choline than is normally found in the diet, can a healthy younger person perform better mentally? While the presence of extra choline does increase the amount of acetylcholine in certain areas of the brain, says Barbara Strupp, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and nutritional sciences at Cornell University, "that doesn't mean it has any effect on learning. Just because you have more acetylcholine available doesn't mean more will be used," unless neurons are specifically calling on it.
It's different, however, in Alzheimer's patients. They have suffered neuron loss, which puts a burden on surrounding cells. "The remaining cells are firing more," says Strupp. "Maybe these people would benefit from megadoses of choline." Indeed, aging mice given choline supplements showed improvement on memory tests, and an increase in the number of dendritic spines, tiny branches on nerve cells by which they communicate with each other.
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