The nutrient of focus and concentration provides new benefits …

Choline Sharpens Cognition Aim
… by enhancing coordination
By Will Block

Conducted in Holland (The Netherlands), a new scientific study presents the first evidence for choline’s ability to create rapid changes in skilled behavior.1 While literally enhancing aim coordination, this study also reveals the nutrient’s wide-ranging effects on cognition.

Functional Foods and Nutrients

As we know (with the exception of some vegans and nutritional illiterates), humans need to consume a complex set of nutrients to be able to stay alive and live healthy over the long-term. Nevertheless, the ingestion of certain foods or nutrients as supplements can also have short-term effects that may be desirable for a variety of functional enhancements. For example, chemical compounds such as caffeine and nicotine are well recognized to alter the state of arousal and performance on a variety of tasks. These effects can act quickly and are relatively evident because they provide the user with a conscious feeling of increased general alertness.


While literally enhancing
aim coordination, this study also
reveals the nutrient’s wide-ranging
effects on cognition.


Precursors of Neurotransmitters

There are also nutrients with subtler effects that target and enhance specific cognitive skills. These nutrients include amino acids such as tryptophan (or 5-HTP) and phenylalanine (or tyrosine), which are precursors of the neurotransmitters serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine. Choline is another nutrient with effects on cognition because it is a precursor to the production of acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter crucial for communication between neurons in the nervous system (See Fig. 1).

Cognition Encompasses Memory and Is Much More

Despite the findings of studies showing that other nutrients can enhance some aspects of memory, choline is one of the few nutrients known to enhance cognition. Cognition encompasses memory. Indeed, it is the set of all mental processes and abilities related to knowledge, memory and working memory, judgment and evaluation, attention and concentration, reasoning and what is known as “computation” reasoning, along with problem solving and decision making. It also involves comprehension and practicing the arts of language. Cognition is the mind at work.

As choline is important for the communication between motor neurons and the control of skeletal muscles, the researchers of the Dutch study assumed that choline supplementation might have positive effects on action coordination in humans. From learning to walk in early childhood to navigating on ice skates (a popular coordination sport in Holland), bodily movements are driven by a complex interplay of coordinated skeletal muscle movements. Muscles are innervated by networks of motor neurons that depend on neural communication through the chemical release of neurotransmitters.


Results showed that participants
hit targets more centrally after
choline supplementation.


Rapidly Hitting the Centers of Computer Targets

In the Dutch study, a group of twenty-eight healthy students (median age of 19.5; 24 of whom were women) ingested two grams of choline bitartrate (about 820 mg of choline) or a placebo in two separate sessions (similar to the ingestion of approximately 5 hard-boiled eggs or 250 g beef liver). The given amounts were well below the established 3.5 g recommended upper intake level for adults (Food and nutrition board of the US institute of Medicine), but higher than the so-called adequate intake (AI) for adults: 550 mg/day of choline for men and 425 mg/day for women. Seventy minutes after ingestion, participants performed a visual-motor aiming task in which they had to rapidly hit the centers of targets.

Figure 1. Nutrients and synthesized neurotransmitters with subtler effects that target and enhance specific cognitive skills.
LEM1510Chol_Fig1_274.jpg
(click on thumbnail for full sized image)

With Choline, More Targets and More Centrally

Results showed that participants hit targets more centrally after choline supplementation. Pupil size (a cognition-sensitive biomarker) also significantly decreased after choline intake and correlated positively with the hit distance to the targets and the number of target misses, and negatively with reaction times.

These findings demonstrate a choline-induced tendency towards action precision in the trade-off between speed and accuracy. The changes in pupil size suggest that choline uptake induces cholinergic functions that alter in the nervous system.

While the domain of psychopharmacology have extensively studied the effects of drugs on neurotransmitter release, blockage, or re-uptake inhibition, few investigations have explored how nutrients are linked to nervous system activity and motor coordination.


Few investigations have explored how
nutrients are linked to nervous system
activity and motor coordination.


Choline-to-Acetylcholine Synthesis in the Brain

The results of the Dutch study provide incentive for additional studies into the underlying mechanisms. Nonetheless, papers dating back to 1975 indicate that choline-to-acetylcholine synthesis acts centrally in the brain.2 This biochemical process is thought to affect the cholinergic motor neurons that program and control coordination of the skeletal muscles and the eyes’ pupillary muscles (autonomous nervous system).

Targeting Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptors

Nearby motor areas may also be affected by ingested choline. In fact, recent findings indicate that choline specifically targets nicotinic acetylcholine receptors.3 Regrettably, there are not yet any non-invasive methods available to determine where the actual chemical interactions of choline and acetylcholine in the human brain take place in vivo. However, multimodal neuroimaging will soon solve that problem.4 As well, follow-up studies that assess choline levels in the participant’s blood could confirm the relation between choline uptake and behavioral changes. That’s because choline plasma levels increase after the intake of choline or choline donors.


Individuals that were more effective
(had fewer misses) benefitted more
from choline supplementation than
less effective individuals.


Pupil Dynamics Reflect Choline

Nonetheless, the Dutch findings project the possibility that pupil dynamics could be employed as a tool to measure changes in nervous system activity after choline intake. As prior research suggests, choline ingestion increases parasympathetic nervous system activity. This explains the researchers’ observations of more focused, functional behavior due to altered cholinergic activity (see Fig. 2).

Choline May Counteract Sympathetic Activity

While the noradrenergic sympathetic nervous system has received extremely strong scientific interest—especially in the context of pupil dilations—the effects of choline have garnered far less interest.

However, choline may impinge upon sympathetic activity through parasympathetic activity. This is reflected in the slower reaction times and decreased pupil size (see Fig. 2).


The outcomes of this study may
be of direct help to athletes who
can benefit from improvements in
motor coordination despite
slower reaction times.


An interesting observation from the Dutch study was that individuals that were more effective (had fewer misses) benefitted more from choline supplementation than less effective individuals. While this may seem counter-intuitive, as one would expect more room for improvement in the less efficient individuals, the researchers observed similar patterns in other cognitive-enhancement interventions

It could be that—at least in the studies to date—the performance before the test did not only reflect the current skill level but also the individual degree of short-term plasticity of the skill. This could be considered because prior studies reported no effect of choline supplementation, at least on endurance in cyclists and runners.

Coordination Functions Consistent with Animal Studies

In contrast to these studies, the researchers tested choline’s effects on visuomotor mechanism performance during rapid actions in response to visual displays in healthy students. Although they provided participants only one dose of choline over two sessions, the results are consistent with animal studies that demonstrated the important role of choline in the accurate development and maintenance of proper action coordination functions in rats.5,6

Choline May Affect Fine Rather than Gross Motor Control

Figure 2. Schema explaining how parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems regulate functioning organs.
LEM1510_Chol_Fig2_274.jpg
(click on thumbnail for full sized image)

The most obvious explanation for the null-results of previous studies on humans is that choline specifically affects fine motor control rather than gross movements and repetitive muscle movements, such as in cycling or running. Yet, the researchers claim that they cannot exclude an interaction between choline and endurance exercise on cognition given by the suggestion that exercise may increase brain choline concentration via synaptic plasticity and neurogenesis.

Nevertheless, choline supplementation may have little to no effect on exercise performance among individuals with normal choline levels, but it has been observed among individuals with choline deficiency. The outcomes of this study may be of direct help to athletes who can benefit from improvements in motor coordination despite slower reaction times.

Other Types, Amounts, and Forms of Choline

The participants in the Dutch study consisted of healthy young students with well-developed cognitive performance. Compared with choline bitartrate, CDP-choline only seems to affect older populations with relatively low cognitive performance, and it would be interesting to investigate whether choline bitartrate’s effects generalize to other populations and differ from CDP-choline’s specificity of action.

At the end of the report, the researchers’ findings, together with previous findings, suggest that eating foods rich in choline (or taking choline supplements) may provide several important benefits, including improved motor coordination and health.

Note: Do not use choline bitartrate; in effective doses, there is so much bitartrate in this form of choline that diarrhea is almost inevitable. Chronic diarrhea isn’t just annoying; potassium loss can be so large that it may cause heart failure by ventricular fibrillation. Choline citrate is the preferred form for getting sufficient levels of active choline with the least likelihood of unwanted side effects. Also, vitamin B5 has been identified as an important co-factor for producing acetylcholine more readily.7,8

References

  1. Naber M, Hommel B, Colzato LS. Improved human visuomotor performance and pupil constriction after choline supplementation in a placebo-controlled double-blind study. Sci Rep. 2015 Aug 14;5:13188. doi: 10.1038/srep13188. PubMed PMID:26271904; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4536529.
  2. Cohen EL, Wurtman RJ. Brain acetylcholine: increase after systemic choline administration. Life Sci. 1975 Apr 1;16(7):1095-102. PubMed PMID: 1134185.
  3. Knott V, de la Salle S, Smith D, Choueiry J, Impey D, Smith M, Beaudry E, Saghir S, Ilivitsky V, Labelle A. Effects of acute CDP-choline treatment on resting state brain oscillations in healthy volunteers. Neurosci Lett. 2015 Mar 30;591:121-5. doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2015.02.032. Epub 2015 Feb 17. PubMed PMID:25700947.
  4. Libero LE, DeRamus TP, Lahti AC, Deshpande G, Kana RK. Multimodal neuroimaging based classification of autism spectrum disorder using anatomical, neurochemical, and white matter correlates. Cortex. 2015 May;66:46-59. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2015.02.008. Epub 2015 Mar 3. PubMed PMID: 25797658.
  5. Nag N, Berger-Sweeney JE. Postnatal dietary choline supplementation alters behavior in a mouse model of Rett syndrome. Neurobiol Dis. 2007 May;26(2):473-80. Epub 2007 Feb 13. PubMed PMID: 17395475.
  6. Pacelli C, Coluccia A, Grattagliano I, Cocco T, Petrosillo G, Paradies G, De Nitto E, Massaro A, Persichella M, Borracci P, Portincasa P, Carratù MR. Dietary choline deprivation impairs rat brain mitochondrial function and behavioral phenotype. J Nutr. 2010 Jun;140(6):1072-9. doi: 10.3945/jn.109.116673. Epub 2010 Mar 31. PubMed PMID: 20357080.
  7. Wurtman RJ. Choline metabolism as a basis for the selective vulnerability of cholinergic neurons. 1992 Apr;15(4):117-22. Review. PubMed PMID:1374967.
  8. Ulus IH, Wurtman RJ. Choline increases acetylcholine release. Lancet. 1987 Mar 14;1(8533):624. PubMed PMID: 2881154.


Will Block is the publisher and editorial director of Life Enhancement magazine.

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