Health & Welfare: Enhancing Intelligence


In recent columns, we have been discussing nutrients and prescription drugs that, within a certain dose range, increase animal and human intelligence. In September and October, we described the learning- and memory-improving abilities of the nutrients choline, lecithin, phenylalanine, and the prescription drug Deaner® (Riker). Here we discuss the cognitive benefits, revealed in animal experiments and human clinical trials, of the nutrient RNA and the prescription drug Diapid® (Sandoz), a synthetic version of the natural pituitary-gland hormone vasopressin.

Ribonucleic acid, more commonly known as RNA, is a natural substance important for learning and memory. This large molecule and its precursors (substances chemically converted to RNA in the brain), such as orotic and inosinic acids, can improve these two functions in animals. Current scientific evidence suggests that learning and the production of new memories involves the creation of RNA, which then directs the synthesis of protein molecules, on which the actual information is coded. This is supported by the fact that when ribonuclease, an enzyme which destroys RNA, is injected into the brain of experimental animals, they are unable to learn. Protein synthesis blockers also prevent memory consolidation.

RNA also protects the brain against a common type of damage caused by exposure to oxidizing substances, such as autoxidized (rancid) fat. This autoxidation occurs when unsaturated fats come in contact with oxygen and free radicals in the body. The oxygen chemically combines with the fat, changing it to a rancid fat in a free-radical chain reaction, with a release of free radicals that can be very damaging to the cell structure.

One visible sign of such damage is the development of age spots in the skin. This same brownish pigment (called lipofuscin) also accumulates in many of the brain's nerve cells, where it is believed to interfere with cellular metabolism, destroying neurites (fibers that connect nerve cells, allowing them to communicate with each other) in the process.

RNA is a member of an important class of protective substances called antioxidants (vitamins A, C, E, B-1, B-5, B-6, and the minerals zinc and selenium are antioxidants), which at proper dosages can help prevent the build-up of oxidation damage and, by so doing, slow down the aging process. In one experiment, RNA extended the average lifespan of white mice by 16 percent.

Some individuals should be careful in their use of supplemental RNA, particularly those who have gout or a tendency thereto. Gout is often portrayed in movies as a humorous condition—the cantankerous old gentleman sitting down with his leg elevated and foot bandaged, trying hard to prevent anyone or anything from bumping into the foot. However, gout is not funny. It occurs when uric acid, produced in the body as nucleic acids are oxidized, is not excreted sufficiently rapidly to prevent the formation of crystals in joints and kidneys, causing extreme pain and tissue damage. Since RNA is a nucleic acid, its use by gout-prone individuals (of which 95 percent are men) may produce the classic symptoms. It should be emphasized that by far the vast majority of individuals can handle RNA without any trouble, since few people have the genes that make them subject to gout. But if you wish to use RNA, it would be wise to have your doctor test your serum uric acid level, even if you do not have a family history of gout.

Vitamin B-12 increases RNA synthesis in brain cells (neurons), resulting in faster learning in one rat study. The use of B-12 does not seem to pose a problem for gout patients.

When you go to your health food store to buy RNA, check the label. Unprocessed yeast (which contains 6 to 12 percent RNA) is not the best source of RNA because the yeast cell walls are difficult to digest—you have to break these walls down to get at the RNA inside. Look for RNA that has been extracted from yeast. Much of what is labeled "RNA" or "RNA plus DNA" in health food stores is really just grossly overpriced yeast.

Vasopressin (also known as antidiuretic hormone) is released by the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland in your brain. It has recently been discovered that vasopressin has powerful positive effects on human memory and learning. It also regulates urine volume in the body. Some people whose pituitary glands do not release enough vasopressin urinate frequently and in much larger volumes than other people. This condition is called diabetes insipidus (it has nothing to do with sugar-insulin diabetes) and can be successfully treated with a vasopressin nasal spray (Diapid®, a prescription drug made by Sandoz).

Oiveros and associates found that giving vasopressin to human amnesia victims restored their memories. Legros and coworkers found that a dose of 16 IU per day of the vasopressin nasal spray Diapid® improved learning in tasks requiring attention, concentration, fast reactions, and memory in a group of men in their 50s and 60s. No side effects were found in the men at the dosage of 16 IU per day. At this dosage, there was no elevation of blood pressure or alteration of blood electrolytes. Sometimes angina pains are increased temporarily in angina patients. It is advisable for these patients to avoid use of Diapid®; consult your physician.

The clinical studies on vasopressin's effects on memory and learning that we have reviewed have involved the pure hormone administered by nasal spray or injection.

Some popular drugs affect brain vasopressin levels. Cocaine, for example, stimulates the pituitary gland to release it, eventually depleting the supply. This may explain the altered levels of consciousness reported by some individuals using cocaine. (The danger here is that after the unusual stimulation provided by the drug to release vasopressin, a deficit of vasopressin may exist later when you need it.)

An effect of vasopressin that we did not see mentioned in the scientific literature is an intensification and prolongation of orgasm. Since discovering this by our own observations, we have found scientific literature references to vasopressin release during orgasm in laboratory mammals. The release of vasopressin by cocaine is probably responsible for at least part of cocaine's reputation as an enhancer of sex.

On the other hand, alcohol inhibits the brain's release of vasopressin, thus resulting in impairment of memory, concentration, reaction time, and attention. Taking the vasopressin can partially compensate for the mental and physical deficits created by alcohol. Unless you are drinking to forget, vasopressin does not interfere with the relaxation and euphoria induced by alcohol. Cannabis (marijuana), well known for causing a decrement in short-term memory (especially in novice users), also inhibits vasopressin release.

One of the brain's messengers that stimulates the release of vasopressin is acetylcholine. The action of this substance contributes to our understanding of the effects of such nutrients as choline and lecithin, which are chemically converted by the brain into acetylcholine and have also been reported to improve memory and learning, as we discussed in our September column.

A list of scientific literature on this topic is available through REASON. Send a stamped, self-addressed envelope and ask for H&W references, November.

Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw are consulting scientists and authors of the current bestseller Life Extension (Warner Books). Copyright © 1982 by Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw.