September 22, 2003
1- Featured Article: Creatine and Brain Power.
This Month’s Featured Article:
Creatine and Brain Power.
As for any activity we undertake, thought requires energy (or should, in any case). In fact, thinking takes lots of energy. On a per weight basis the brain is one of the body’s highest energy consumers. Although representing only 2% of our total body mass, the brain consumes nearly one quarter of our energy resources. The disproportionate energy consumption of the brain is clearly evidenced by the huge amount of heat radiated from our heads.
Any thought we abstract, any sensation we perceive, or any action we initiate, is encoded by electrical impulses that travel throughout our Central Nervous Systems. Charged atoms, otherwise known as ions, underlie these electrical impulses. Ionic currents literally flow through our nerve cells (neurons) relaying information from brain to target and back again. The activation of a neuron is initiated with the inward flow of positively charged sodium ions. This causes a localized accumulation of positive charges near sodium’s point of entry at the neuronal membrane. To relieve this buildup of positive charges, potassium ions (also positive) rapidly respond by flowing outward. This instantaneous switch in ionic polarity is similar to a spark that propagates along the entire length of the nerve cell. Obviously, this situation can’t continue forever, otherwise all of the sodium ions would end up on the inside the neuron and all the potassium ions on the outside. Indeed, after a flurry of electrical activity the relative distribution of sodium and potassium (near the membrane) nearly reverses. In order for brain activity to continue, therefore, these ions need to be actively placed back onto their appropriate sides of the membrane. This requires plenty of energy.
The molecular structures that pump sodium and potassium back to their respective sides of the neuronal membrane are called ATPases; obviously, since they rely on ATP to function. In fact, maintaining these pumps active is the greatest sink of energy in the brain. As in muscle, however, ATP is often limiting. Also analogous to the muscular situation is the fact that phosphocreatine (PCr) is what assures a steady supply of ATP to the cell. PCr thus keeps these ATPases pumping sodium and potassium back into their respective compartments, thereby allowing continual neuronal activity. Figuratively speaking, phosphocreatine keeps us thinking.
So, what does this have to do with creatine?
Recall that PCr is the activated form of creatine found within the cell. When we supplement with creatine, what we are in actuality doing is increasing the PCr content of the cell. Therefore, at least in theory, creatine supplementation should influence how well we think under pressure. Food for thought, so to speak.
One recent study, furthermore, showed that mice deficient in the enzyme that creates PCr from creatine, creatine kinase, are slower at learning a water maze. In other words, the mice with lower levels of PCr erred more often and generally spent more time in the water. The stage was thus set for human studies…
Does creatine supplementation influence mental acuity in humans?
This was the question asked by a soon to be released study conducted at the Universities of Sydney and Macquarie, Australia.
The study examined the effect of creatine supplementation (5 grams/day for six weeks) on the ability to perform two cognitive tests, the Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices (RAPMs) and Weschler Auditory Backward Digit Span (BDS). These tasks are designed to test non-verbal intelligence (IQ) and verbal memory capacity (short-term memory), respectively.
The authors of the study also chose 45 vegetarians and vegans as experimental subjects. This group of individuals was chosen since their dietary intake of creatine, which was negligible, would not interfere with the amount of creatine administered during the course of the study.
This study consisted of a placebo-controlled, cross-over design. This simply means that each subject served as his own control scenario. Subjects either took creatine or placebo (maltodextrin) for six weeks before performing one of the mental tests (week 6). They then washed out for another six weeks in order that their creatine levels should return to baseline (week 12). Supplementation then commenced anew (six more weeks) using the opposite supplementing condition. At week 18 they then repeated the same test under the influence of the second supplementing condition. The entire cycle repeated after a washout of another six weeks with the other mental task. Therefore, each subject took each test twice, once under the influence of creatine and once under the influence of placebo.
Subjects who were administered creatine exhibited improved short-term memory and were better able to problem solve under pressure of time. Specifically, the creatine group was better able to repeat back long sequences of numbers from memory (BDS). Creatine subjects were on average able to repeat back 1-2 more integers than their placebo counterparts. Their general IQ scores were also higher than the placebo group (RAPMs). Quoting directly from the manuscript: “Supplementation with creatine significantly increased intelligence compared with placebo”.
So, should you take a teaspoon of creatine before your next all-nighter? Although “thought provoking” it is still too early to say. Not all thought processes are alike. This study does seem to suggest, however, that creatine may help with computational tasks.
Who knows, in the future taking a swig of creatine before a cram session may be an accepted practice among university students.
Become informed! What goes into your body is a serious matter. Practice moderation and do your best to keep up with the latest scientific research. According to the FDA, creatine is a dietary supplement, not a drug, and, as such, not as tightly regulated. As with all supplements, safety and purity are of utmost importance. Purchase your creatine from a reputable dealer. Finally, before taking supplements always check with your doctor.
The Scientific Reference
Rae, C., Digney, A .L., McEwan, S.R. and Bates, T.C. (September 2003) Oral creatine monohydrate supplementation improves cognitive performance; a placebo-controlled, double-blind cross-over trial. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London – Biological Sciences.
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