Smart Ingredients for Brain Health

Nov 7, 2017

Brain health supplements are a growing market segment thanks to several recent research developments and the rise of age-related cognitive decline. One market report by Research and Markets states that the global brain health supplement market was worth $2.3 billion (USD) in 2015, and worldwide sales of brain health supplements are projected to exceed $11 billion (USD) by 2024.1

This report points to an aging population of highly educated professionals as the driving force behind the growth in demand. In addition, increased awareness about the benefits of supplements for supporting concentration and memory among college students, scientists, and entrepreneurs has increased sales in this category, according to the firm.

Research and Markets also states that the largest sales channel for brain health products is online stores, which are outpacing drug stores and supermarkets in sales growth due to more variety in price points, more product launches, and a greater availability of private labels.

As demand for brain health ingredients grows, so does interest in research that demonstrates the value of new and established nutrients for promoting healthy brain function. New studies continue to demonstrate the specialized beneficial effects of various compounds on the brain, particularly for memory and cognition support.

While there are too many brain health ingredients on the market to examine them all in one sitting, what follows is a shortlist of some popular ingredients with new studies that demonstrate their benefits. (Note that this list is by no means exhaustive, and is intended to be a sampling of some compelling recent studies.)


Omega-3s for Athletes

Omega-3 fatty acids, the class of polyunsaturated fatty acids typically used as metabolic regulators in dietary supplements, are also useful in cognitive supplement formulations.

Gretchen Vannice, RDN, head of Global Nutrition Education at Organic Technologies, the parent company of AlaskOmega (Coshocton, OH), says omega-3 fatty acids are essential to healthy brain function, and that supplements are an ideal delivery form given that most Americans do not consume enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diet.

Says Vannice, “90% of the omega-3 fats in the brain are DHA. In the adult brain, DHA is especially concentrated in gray matter and is enriched in brain cell membranes, where it directly influences functional processes like membrane fluidity, gene expression, myelination, neuroinflammation, neurotransmitter release, and more.”

Vannice says that decades of research have demonstrated that high levels of omega-3 fatty acids are associated with better cognition, slower cognitive decline in older adults, improvements in episodic memory in women, and improvements in working memory in men.

Perhaps the most promising new brain health application of omega-3s is assisting athletes in recovering from traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). One randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial on DHA omega-3 fatty acid supplements followed 81 National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I football players for 189 days, the entire duration of the college football season. Participants were given 0, 2, 4, or 6 grams of DHA per day. The study tracked measures of mild traumatic brain injury, including changes in serum neurofilament light (NFL), which is a biomarker of axonal injury. Elevated serum NFL levels is a telltale sign of mild traumatic brain injury and is common among football players.2

This study found that supplementing with DHA attenuated axonal injury, particularly among starting players, who tend to have more playing time and physical contact, and are therefore more likely to suffer brain injuries.

“This was the first study to examine prophylactic use of omega-3 supplements in football players,” Vannice notes. “While the study used DHA only, based on the literature, I can predict that equal or higher amounts of EPA would provide additional benefits not only for brain health, but also for physical health and recovery.”


Extending the Shelf Life of Phospholipid Supplements

Phospholipids are naturally occurring lipids present in all cell membranes that contain at least one phosphate group. Phosphatidylserine (PS) is a type of phospholipid that signals phagocytes to begin apoptosis.3

Soft Gel Technologies, Inc. (Commerce, CA) President and CEO Steve Holtby says PS is an essential building block that works to stabilize the membranes of brain cells, thereby protecting brain cell activity and limiting cell deterioration. He also notes the ingredient’s role in stimulating memory and cognition as well as regulating mood.

Says Holtby: “PS supplements have been demonstrated in clinical trials to improve memory, concentration, word recall, and mood in middle-aged and elderly subjects. For older adults with moderate cognitive impairment, PS has produced consistently modest increases in recall of word lists.”

Holtby says that early PS ingredients were extracted from the brains of cows, which presented potential dangers concerning the transfer of infectious diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy. To resolve this risk, manufacturers like Soft Gel Technologies developed a means of extracting PS from soybeans and other plant sources.

However, delivery mechanism optimization presented further challenges. PS tends to degrade when stored in a soft gel, which makes it difficult to produce a PS supplement that appeals to older supplement users who have readily embraced soft gels as a delivery mechanism.

“To overcome this problem,” Holtby explains, “we created a fluid dispersion PS material that has a greater stability. We’ve conducted stability and shelf-life studies, and we’ve found that the soft gel capsules maintain ingredient quality and level for a long period of time. Shelf-life studies performed by an independent laboratory for phospholipid analysis found that even after 24 months, the material showed absolutely no degradation.”


Citicoline May Hold Promise for Schizophrenia Patients

A naturally occurring cholinergic compound, citicoline promotes normal brain function and supports neuroprotective mechanisms by stimulating the production of phosphatidylcholine and acetylcholine in the brain.4

Clinical trials have examined citicoline as a therapy for addressing substance dependence, bipolar disorder, and traumatic brain injuries. Research is expanding into its benefits for schizophrenia patients.

One randomized, placebo-controlled trial followed 43 adult schizophrenia patients for 16 weeks.5 Before the trial, participants were assessed using the PANSS scale, which measures schizophrenia symptom severity. Individuals were assigned a score correlated to the sum of their ratings for five symptoms on the PANSS negative-symptom subscale. Participants in the experimental group received gradually increasing doses of citicoline, starting at 500 mg/day on the first day of the trial and ending with 2,000 mg/day by the beginning of the second week.

Over the course of the 16 weeks, both the placebo group (n=19) and the experimental groups (n=15) gradually lowered their PANSS scores. However, the experimental group scores decreased by one full standard deviation, whereas the placebo group scores decreased by only one half of a standard deviation.

While a follow-up double-blind clinical trial failed to replicate a statistically significant reduction in the experimental group’s PANSS scores, it did find that citicoline had a significant effect on global functioning scores and free verbal recall.6

These studies are significant in that they found a therapeutic effect of citicoline on schizophrenia symptoms. Schizophrenia is a challenging condition to address. The negative symptoms of the disease in particular, such as apathy and avolition, are notoriously resistant to conventional therapies, partly because schizophrenia medications like haloperidol and risperidone tend to induce these symptoms in healthy individuals.7

The fact that the first study found a reduction in PANSS scores indicates that citicoline may hold promise in addressing the negative symptoms of schizophrenia.  The study authors caution, however, “further study…is warranted in larger studies that will have greater (statistical) power.” 

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