Thoughts about brain function and neuromyths. (longread)

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Strolling through the virtual aisles of Amazon and looking for brain related literature quickly becomes overwhelming. In addition to scientific books, written by scientists, educators and physician with neuroscientific training, there is a plethora of other brain related publications. Their catching titles imply that by reading these books you will be able to “hack”, “boost”, “turbo charge”and “optimize” your brain. The metrics for such a success is not precisely defined besides that the consumer of these “smart pills” containing “nootropics” will “heighten your cognitive abilities”, “boost your mood”, “elevate your perception”, and “supercharge your memory”. This all sounds nice and promising, making the audience think that just by taking the miracle pills designed by “neurohackers” we will be able to excel beyond human limits into Cyborg territory.

As in general with fiction, these stories are created around some core truths and spun out to neuromyths. As aptly identified by Christopther Bergland in his article in Psychology Today, “Neuromyths are common misconceptions about how the mind and brain function”. This is a very elegant description of this problem. Neuromyths are similar to a belief system, mostly resistant to scientific data and facts. Neuromyths are a faith based belief system, whereas Neuroscience is an evidence-based belief system.

Neuromyths do not attempt to distinguish between fact and fiction, do not seek unbiased evaluation of evidence and have no mechanism to avoid bias created by individual beliefs of each and every human. In short, neuromyths are faith-based mental constructs, supported only by individual or at best anecdotal observations. The faith to these myths is continuously fed through “knowledge” disseminated by “authorities” in brain modulation, enhancement or hacking.

The juxtaposition with Neuroscience  is not created to imply a lesser value to or completely dismiss Neuromyths. It just reveals that the general population is fascinated by the functioning of our brain and, seeks and demands education in this matter. Unfortunately, this is where neuroscience educators failed their audience. It is apparent that generators of neuromyths responded to this demand faster than neuroscientists. Where neuroscientists failed to educate their audience with facts and insights, the void was quickly filled by pseudoscience and anecdotal observations of “opinion leaders” and “influencers”.

Over the time if enough people agree on the “truth” of the neuromyths the belief-system is further solidified and immune against verification. However, we are currently not in a dogmatic stand still.

I do believe that neuromyths and neuroscience are not mutually exclusive. Neuroscience can help clarify some myths about the brain whereas neuromyths can force neuroscience to share their knowledge in a more accessible language. Ultimately we can believe in facts.

A simple example is the discussion about neurotransmitters, for example acetylcholine. Neurons, brains functional cells, use neurotransmitters to communicate with each other to control bodily functions, such as skeletal muscle contraction, heart beat and digestion. Acetylcholine is one of these. It is mainly produced in certain neurons and requires the compounds choline and Acetly-Coenzyme A and the enzyme choline acetyltransferase.

Choline + Acetyl Coenzyme A= Acetylcholine +Coenzyme A

But where does Choline and Acetyl Coenzyme A come from? Choline is produced in our body in insufficient amounts. As an essential nutrient, choline must be ingested through a balanced diet containing meats, dairy, fish and poultry. Malnutrition or bad nutritional habits fail to supply the body with sufficient amount of choline and must be provided by other means, such as dietary supplements. So far neuroscience agrees with neuromyths that nutritional supplementation of choline is essential. However, disagreement begins when actions such as boosting acetylcholine levels through brain permeable drugs are claimed.

Acetylcholine production in our brain cells is very tightly regulated to avoid any unwanted and uncoordinated actions of this important neurotransmitter. Excess of acetylcholine is either broken down and removed by acetylcholinesterase. In addition, acetylcholine is stored in so-called neurotransmitter vesicles in synapses of neurons. Synapses are the point of contacts between neurons. Acetylcholine is released from the vesicles into the space between synapse and the membrane of the target neuron. Once released and executed its function, acetylcholine is rapidly broken down by acetylcholinesterase, recycled and repacked into synaptic vesicles. Only released acetylcholine is functional, not the ones stored in vesicles. Hence, in a healthy individual with a balanced diet, boosting acetylcholine concentration beyond the required and tightly regulated level will not further energize, sharpen focus or improve memory beyond physiological levels. The more the merrier motto does not work here and in general in brain. Therefore, we can agree that choline (but not acetylcholine, its produced in the neuron) supplementation is beneficial in bad dietary conditions but will provide limited benefits in healthy individuals with balanced diets.

There are two ways of keeping acetylcholine at physiological levels. Dietary supplementation is one option; inhibiting acetylcholinesterase is another one.

One of the main sources for choline in dietary supplements is Alpha-GPC, a very potent precursor for choline used in acetylcholine production. In animal models, Alpha-GPC had significant benefits. Studies in humans are limited but continuously expanding. So far, human trials indicate beneficial effects of Alpha-GPC.

Inhibition of acetylcholinesterase is another way to improve acetylcholine levels. Huperzine A is a potent inhibitor of acetylcholinesterase and overdose can be disastrous. The recommended amount is between 50 and 200 microgram. However, when carefully balanced to act synergistically with choline suppliers, Huperzine A levels can be lowered down to 8 micrograms and still have the desired effect.

As long as we keep an open mind, are familiar with basics of brain function and get information from reliable scientific sources use of dietary supplements can be life enhancing.

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