Health & Welfare: Boosting Brain Power

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In the last few columns we've been discussing nutrients and certain prescription drugs that have been shown to increase animal and human intelligence. This month we cover the importance to brain function of the oxidation of fats in the brain. We also describe the safe and effective use of the intelligence booster prescription drug Hydergine® (Sandoz).

Normal metabolism involves the oxidation of foodstuffs to produce energy. These oxidation reactions are all enzyme-controlled, however; otherwise, we could not survive the oxidation damage that would result. The improvement in brain functioning that sometimes results from short bouts of exposure to higher-than-atmospheric concentrations of oxygen are probably at least partially due to the stimulation (induction) of the body's production of more of these control enzymes (such as superoxide dismutase, glutathione peroxidase, and catalases).

The brain is composed largely of polyunsaturated fats, which are very susceptible to undesired uncontrolled oxidation reactions. These are called autoxidation and are caused by chain reactions of free radicals. The same type of reaction occurs when polyunsaturated oils are exposed to oxygen in the air and become rancid.

The presence of autoxidized, or rancid, fats in the brain has many undesirable effects:

• Autoxidized fats are carcinogenic (can cause cancer).

• They inhibit the activity of immune system T-cells and macrophages (special white blood cells that prevent disease by attacking and eating viruses, bacteria, cancer cells, and atherosclerotic plaques).

• They cause mutations in the DNA blueprints in brain cells (which can lead to abnormal brain cells not capable of performing their original function or, rarely, to brain tumors).

• Autoxidized fats make up part of brown, cell-clogging, aging pigments called lipofuscin, both in the skin (colloquially known as "age spots" or "liver spots") and in the brain. Created in part by free-radical chain reactions, lipofuscin pigment buildup in brain cells can result in the destruction of fine branches (neurites) connecting these cells and allowing them to communicate with each other. The lipofuscin is believed to damage these neurites by blocking the flow of nutrients within the nerve cells.

• In general, autoxidized fats contribute to a chain reaction of deterioration and aging in the brain.

• They are atherogenic (atherosclerosis-causing).

• Autoxidized fats inhibit the production of prostacyclin, a hormone that lines all normal arteries and prevents abnormal blood clotting. They can also promote cell membrane damage and the production of thromboxanes, both of which promote clotting. Blood clots in the brain are the cause of about 85 percent of all strokes.

In one feeding experiment performed on rats, safflower oil containing polyunsaturated fatty acids resulted in a performance decrease—the rats were less intelligent—than when fed an equal number of calories of butter, a saturated fat. It is very likely that this result was due to damage from free-radical autoxidation. Other scientists have found that damaging free-radical autoxidation reactions in the body and brain can be inhibited by feeding animals and humans antioxidant nutrients, which include vitamins C, E, A, B-1, B-5, B-6, and choline; the amino acid cysteine; and minerals zinc and selenium. It is advisable, therefore, to avoid excessive consumption of polyunsaturated oils and to take adequate quantities of the free-radical controlling antioxidant nutrients.

The prescription drug Hydergine® is a very interesting substance that increases intelligence in normal humans, as well as improving mental function in older persons with mild to moderate symptoms of senility. In a group of normal persons, a dose of 12 milligrams of Hydergine® per day for two weeks resulted in reported improvements in tested cognitive abilities, including memory and abstract reasoning (the ability to find a pattern hidden in a series of abstract line drawings).

Neurotransmitters are chemicals that particular nerve cells use to communicate with each other. But inside the cell membrane of the receiving cell, a special "second messenger" called cyclic AMP delivers the message to the nucleus (where the message interacts with the DNA control system). Hydergine® regulates the levels of cyclic AMP by partially inhibiting the enzymes that degrade it and by protecting the free-radical-sensitive enzyme that manufactures it, thereby preventing the cyclic AMP from becoming either too high or too low.

Hydergine® provides substantial protection to the brain against nonenzymatically controlled autoxidation reactions. It slows lipofuscin buildup in brain cells by a factor of four. Because of its powerful antioxidant effects, it protects the brain from free-radical damage that runs rampant under conditions of low oxygen availability. In Europe, but not in the United States, Hydergine® is routinely given surgery patients so that, if complications arise (such as cardiac arrest), there is more time to correct the situation before brain damage occurs. During open heart surgery (such as coronary bypass) in the United States, patients frequently suffer brain damage, sometimes severe. The use of Hydergine® preoperatively would be a wise precaution to prevent this damage; it can also help recovery to some extent when damage has already occurred.

Evidence suggests that Hydergine® acts in a similar way to the natural hormone nerve growth factor (NGF) to stimulate the growth of the neurites that connect nerve cells and allow their intercommunication. Neurites are essential for learning and memory. One reason you can't teach an old dog new tricks is that his brain is less able to make neurites. It may take six months to two years for benefits from neurite growth to manifest themselves in humans. Hydergine® also increases protein synthesis in the brain, which is required for learning.

We consider the FDA recommended dose of 3 milligrams per day inadequate to provide the intelligence- and neurite-promoting effects. In Europe, 9 milligrams a day is typically used, and some physicians there believe 12 milligrams a day is a reasonable dose. Hydergine® is very nontoxic. At the dosages mentioned, nausea and headaches may occasionally occur; these are annoying but not dangerous.

We ourselves use about 20 milligrams a day of the 1-milligram sublingual tablets. These are allowed to dissolve in the mouth (we hold them between our upper lips and gums) and deliver more Hydergine® directly to the brain than the oral tablets do (when taken orally, 20 percent of the Hydergine® is lost in the feces and another 40 percent is destroyed by the liver). Since Hydergine® provides substantial protection to the liver against free-radical-caused alcohol damage, frequent alcohol drinkers should consider using both oral and sublingual forms.

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

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

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