Almost all creatures have an amazingly constructed chunk of tissue embedded within their skull that acts as the control center to their entire bodies. With billions of neurons making thousands and thousands of neural connections per second all throughout the day, we are forced to admit that the brain is by far one of the most complicated but fascinating storage and processing systems on the planet. As impressive and important as this biological computer seems to be however, it gets old and wears and tears over time. With so many defects that can damage the brain over time, one would think that there must be a way to keep this amazing body part healthy and working at full optimization. Interestingly, there just happens to be a plethora of different natural remedies found in nature’s pharmacy.
THE HUMAN BRAIN
The adult human brain has an average mass of approximately 2.5 – 3lbs, of which there is much variation depending on gender, ethnicity, disease, disorders, etc. Of these variations in brain mass, there has been no correlation between mass and intelligence, at least between genders1. The cerebrum, brainstem, and cerebellum make up the primary sections of the brain. The cerebrum covers the largest area of the brain and sits above all the other structures. Within the outer regions of the cerebrum is where the cerebral cortex is found and consists of layers and layers of neurons called the cerebral cortex. The cerebrum is where our cognitive processes of perception, thought, and decision-making take place.
The brainstem is found just underneath the cerebrum and consists of 3 sections that lie in the back part of the skull and extends to the large opening of the occipital bone. This highly protected area of the brain contains nerve tracts, which send information back and forth from the cerebral cortex to the rest of the body.
The cerebellum is divided into three lobes and consists of an outer cortex of richly folded grey matter and an inner medulla of white matter. Certain lobes of the cerebellum have been shown to play a role in the coordination and smoothing of complex motor movements, whereas others help us maintain our balance.
In order for the brain to do what it is supposed to do, millions of interconnections between neurons must be made every microsecond. These neurons consist of a cell body, an axon, and dendrites. It is the dendrites that have the branch-like structures that do the actual connecting to other neurons. These neurons talk to each other by electrochemical signals or nerve impulses that excite other neurons to trigger the release of neurotransmitters, which in turn propagate signals that acts on the target cells.
These neurotransmitters include molecules such as acetycholine, GABA, serotonin, glutamate, and dopamine2. The message that a neuron wants to convey to a target cell depends on which neurotransmitter is released. When neurons want to slow down excitatory signalling in the brain, it will release gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA). Conversely, when excitation is required, neurons will release the neurotransmitter glutamate. Acetylcholine plays a role in wake-sleep cycles, learning, motor function, and short-term memory, just to name a few. Serotonin plays a very important role in appetite, mood, and sensory regulation for example. Dopamine’s main functions are sexual arousal, wakefulness, mood, working memory, motivation, and reward. So, we can see that neurotransmitters pretty much tell the brain how to feel, what to do, and how to act. This is part of what makes us… “us”.
Deep within the Huperzia serrata plant lies a sesquiterpene alkaloid called huperzine A. This plant has been used in Asia for many years and its little molecule of interest has been extracted and studied in the United States for its role in memory loss. Scientists have now uncovered the pharmacology and mechanisms of action of this nutraceutical and have marvelled at how it does what it does. It appears to work in a similar manner to current prescription drugs for fighting against Alzheimer’s disease, by inhibiting cholinesterase (acetylcholine – cleaving enzyme)3. Recall, acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in short-term memory. Also recall one of the main excitatory neurotransmitters, glutamate… well, Huperzine A has been shown in studies to reduce the amount of oxidative stress caused by this excitatory neurotransmitter by literally blocking NMDA receptors (a particular receptor glutamate binds to) in the brain4.
The Maidenhair tree, which is native to China, has unique flavone glycosides and terpenoids in its leaves that do some pretty amazing things for cognitive performance. In particular, memory loss. Gingko extract has been shown in studies to inhibit an enzyme known as monoamine oxidase (MAO)5. This enzyme is responsible for degrading some of our favorite neurotransmitters that help us think and recall stuff. So, inhibiting this enzyme, to an extent, is often very beneficial in some circumstances. In addition, another constituent found in Ginkgo Biloba called bilobalide, has shown great promise in improving memory. It works by reducing free radical activity and inflammation in certain regions of the brain as well as by slowing down neuronal apoptosis (cell death) by some mechanisms6.
Alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine (α-GPC) is fat-free triglyceride with a polar head. Simply put, this enzymatically-derived source of biological choline (recall from the physiology section) has also been shown in recent studies to do wonders for cognitive performance. Since choline is used as “brain food” in humans, this source of choline is able to cross the blood-brain barrier to do its job. Additionally, research shows that within hippocampal regions of the brain, high levels of this molecule can improve some of the malicious effects of Alzheimer’s7. Even in clinical trials where patients were undergoing cholinergic therapy for Alzheimer’s disease, there was much evidence of prolonged effects8, so we can almost think of alpha-GPC as a one-two punch form of a super choline.
When our bodies turn phenylalanine into L-tyrosine, it then has a decision to make… does it make neurotransmitters or does it make other things? This fate lies within the cells that the tyrosine is currently in. When residing in certain parts of the brain, tyrosine will be used as a substrate by certain enzymes that will convert it into norepinephrine or dopamine (the happy neurotransmitters). When this happens in large amounts within these regions, these feel-good molecules have the capacity to promote performance in working memory and target cognitive-control operations9. Basically, they help you concentrate and remember.
Although L-glutamine is one of the most abundant amino acids in the body and serves multiple functions, its most noteworthy role is in its neurophysiology. Once it passes through the blood-brain barrier, one of its fates is its conversion to glutamate, which as mentioned earlier, is one of our excitatory neurotransmitters. This again, is the main neurotransmitter responsible for spatial recognition, formation and retrieval of memories, and the maintenance of consciousness10. Sounds wonderful, but in fact having too much glutamate playing its unique role, causes excitotoxicity in certain regions of the brain. Nonetheless, when optimal doses of glutamine along with other complementary nutrients are administered, a marked improvement in cognitive function is observed11.
Phos Serine is one of many phosphatides found in our neuroanatomy, but is by far one of the most abundantly active in memory and cognitive performance. This interesting little amino acid residue hangs out within the inner membrane of the cell, while anchored to a phospholipid waiting to get put to use. Within the striatum and cerebral cortex, phos serine seems to be able to initiate the release of acetylcholine and dopamine (recall from earlier), thus improving cognitive function and memory12. Phos serine has also been shown to increase the amount of nerve growth factor receptors within the cerebellum and hippocampus13, which makes way for the growth and propagation of new and existing neurons. As research ensues, there seems to be more and more exciting new discoveries involving phos serine and what it can do.
Omega 3 fatty acids
There are certain long-chain fatty acids that our bodies cannot make but absolutely have to have. These are Omega 3, 6, and some 9 fatty acids. In particular, the Omega 3s are nothing more than 20 and 22-carbon alkanes (namely EPA and DHA) that have a few “kinks” in the chain in just the right places for them to perform their mental magic. Studies done on Omega 3 supplementation showed that participants' brains worked 'less hard' and achieved a better cognitive performance than prior to supplementation with Omega 3s14. In others, Omega 3s along with vitamin B12 showed evidence of improved cognitive performance15, so take your vitamins along with cod liver oil!
So, whether we are the Alzheimer’s sufferer or the mentally exhausted college student, it is comforting to know that there is hope for the beat up, worn down, and time-ripened brain. It is also comforting to know that scientists are continuing to research and develop more and more natural ways to improve this already amazing organ. The fact is, we still haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what natural remedies can be found on this planet to repair and enhance that fascinating 3-pound glob of tissue called the human brain.
Chad Brey, a California State University, Northridge alumnus, has since worked as a chemist for various analytical and research facilities such as Amgen, Baxter, and Nusil Technology. Since 1997 he has worked in the dietary supplement industry for companies such as Earthwise Nutrition (formerly known as Great Earth Vitamins) and has earned a number of certificates as an IACET-certified dietary supplement specialist. Chad has written dozens of technical articles on the specifics of how certain dietary supplements work. Chad has formulated and developed small and large molecules in research and development laboratories since 2003 and continues to consult others in R&D today.
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