MHCP is in Cinnamon

Insulin Improves Cognitive Function
Even in Healthy Adults

MHCP, which mimics insulin, may help to achieve nutritional balance in the thinking person's brain
By Aaron W. Jensen, Ph.D.

ood health lies in maintaining a proper balance in some molecules to which you probably rarely give much thought. Although you've surely heard of many of them, such as hemoglobin, fibrin, serotonin, and insulin, you may not fully appreciate how important they really are. Hemoglobin, of course, is found in red blood cells and transports oxygen molecules to all the cells of the body. Fibrin is produced to enhance the formation of blood clots in response to wounds. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that allows nerve cells in the brain to communicate with one another. And insulin causes cells to absorb glucose from the blood so that it can be used to produce the chemical energy that keeps us alive. As we will see shortly, however, insulin does much more than that.

Even minor changes in the levels of any of these molecules can have serious effects on the finely tuned machinery of the human body. Low hemoglobin levels, e.g., will induce fatigue. Low fibrin levels will hamper the formation of blood clots and may cause excessive bleeding, while excess fibrin may induce unwanted clot formation and impair blood flow. Disruptions in serotonin levels lead to mood and eating disturbances. And insulin levels must be precisely regulated to walk the fine line between hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), both of which can be extremely harmful to our health.

Insulin Regulates Blood Sugar

With the burgeoning obesity of the American public - including, shamefully, its children - the role of insulin in our health is becoming ever more critical, because its levels and function are intimately tied to diabetes, a very serious disease that afflicts millions of Americans, often with devastating results.

Insulin is a hormone, a molecule that exerts its effects far from its point of origin. When the pancreas (down in the abdominal cavity, sandwiched between the intestines and the liver) releases insulin in response to elevated blood sugar (glucose) levels, the insulin enters the bloodstream and interacts with cells throughout the entire body. It binds to specialized receptor sites on the cells, signaling them to take up more glucose from the bloodstream. The glucose is thus stabilized at normal levels, and all is well. If this system begins to fail, the result is diabetes.

Insulin Also Affects Cognitive Function

But insulin has many other functions in the body as well. Among the more interesting of these is that it helps to regulate brain function in cognitive processes. Recent investigations into insulin function have shown that it affects the membrane composition of neurons (nerve cells), promotes neuronal growth, regulates the levels of certain brain neurotransmitters, and even prevents neuronal firing in specific regions of the brain.


It is possible that cognitive
impairment may be a more
prevalent condition than has
previously been thought.

In Germany, researchers investigating the role of insulin on cognitive function in normal, healthy adults have shown that a continuous intravenous infusion of insulin into the bloodstream over a short time period does indeed improve cognitive function.1 They enrolled 30 healthy young men (aged 23-32), to whom they administered insulin for 6 hours at either a high dose or a low dose (one-tenth the amount of the high dose). At the same time, the subjects received an infusion of glucose that was continuously monitored to maintain their fasting blood glucose level. In this way, the researchers could evaluate the effects of high or low insulin levels on a constant level of glucose.

Both before and during the 6-hour period of the infusion, the researchers monitored the cognitive performance of the test subjects. Three different sets of standard cognitive tests were used to evaluate their response to the insulin:

  • Auditory evoked potential (AEP). This test registers the response time of individuals to a series of beeps of different pitches: the subject presses a button upon hearing randomly placed high-pitched beeps within a series of continuous low-pitched beeps. The response is then correlated to brain activity measured in specific regions of the brain.
  • Memory recall. This test consists of showing the subjects a series of words at 1-second intervals and then recording the number of words they can recall following a 1-minute rest period.
  • Stroop test. This is actually a series of tests, the most notable of which is the interference task, which measures selective attention. In this task, the name of a color (red, e.g.) is printed in a different color (blue, e.g.) on a black background. The subject is shown a series of such cards and is asked to name the color of the printing, not the color that is spelled out (sounds easy, but . . .). The number of correct responses during a 45-second period is recorded.

Cognition Is Improved in Healthy Adults

In the AEP testing, the subjects exhibited a response consistent with improved cognitive function. The response was quickest in the high-insulin group and was well above the baseline value (the value measured before the treatment was begun), based on activity measured at two different locations in the brain. The low-insulin group responded more slowly but paralleled the high-insulin group's response by the 4 1/2-hour time point, and the favorable cognitive response was maintained through the remainder of the study period.


There is great interest in
identifying natural compounds
that have insulinlike activity.
A shining star in this quest
is cinnamon.

In the memory recall testing, the low-insulin group exhibited a gradual decrease in performance during the treatment, which likely reflects accumulating fatigue due to the decrease in energy metabolism. In the high-insulin group, recall performance remained unchanged or slightly improved during the treatment and was much better than that of the low-insulin group.

In two components of the Stroop test, performance was not significantly different between the two groups of subjects. Toward the end of the test period, however, the high-insulin group showed a significant improvement in the interference task. Because this task measures selective attention, enhanced performance is consistent with improved clarity of thought. Indeed, the high-insulin subjects reported that they had less "difficulty in thinking" during the treatment period.

The results of this study suggest that insulin can improve various cognitive functions in healthy humans. But what about patients with diabetes? Does insulin serve a similar function in that population?

Diabetes and Impaired Cognition Are Linked

A number of studies support the link between diabetes and impaired cognition. In 1997, a review article published in Diabetes Care identified 19 controlled studies in which cognitive function was assessed in patients with type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes.2 Thirteen of these studies reported impaired performance on at least one measure of cognition in diabetic individuals. Thus, this analysis supports the hypothesis that type 2 diabetics are at increased risk of cognitive dysfunction. It is possible, though, that the effects are due not just to deficiencies in glucose metabolism but also to other problems commonly associated with diabetes, such as vascular disease, high blood pressure, and depression.3

Many recent studies support the consensus established in the 1997 article. They show that diabetes increases the risk of cognitive decline and also suggest that the longer the disease persists, the greater the risk. In one study, it was concluded that older women who suffered from diabetes for more than 15 years had a 57-114% increased risk of major cognitive decline compared to nondiabetic women.4


MHCP activates some of the
same pathways as insulin;
it increases glucose uptake, and
it helps convert glucose to
glycogen for energy storage.

It is important to note that not all aspects of cognitive function are impaired to an equal extent in diabetic individuals.3 Memory functions are particularly hard hit, especially in older individuals. This realization has led to the suggestion that brain aging may occur at an accelerated rate in type 2 diabetics. Consistent with this is the observation that diabetics have a two-to-three-fold increased risk of developing dementia of either the vascular or Alzheimer's type (vascular dementia is caused by impaired blood flow to the brain).

Moderately Impaired Glucose Regulation May Be a Risk Factor

The above results are especially interesting when placed in context with other recent data. For example, researchers in Canada found that healthy young volunteers with moderately impaired glucose regulation also display cognitive deficits.5 The researchers acknowledge that these data need to be confirmed, but they also realize their potential importance. That is, given that a wide swath of the population is susceptible to either diabetes or impaired glucose regulation across all ages, it is possible that cognitive impairment may be a more prevalent condition than has previously been thought.

MHCP Mimics Insulin Function

The incidence of diabetes in the United States is cause for great concern. Approximately 15 million Americans have this disease (and one-third of them don't even know it), and another 13 million have elevated fasting blood sugar levels, which puts them at risk for developing diabetes. Consequently, there is great interest in identifying natural compounds that have insulinlike or insulin-potentiating activity. A common spice that has emerged as a shining star in this quest is cinnamon.


It is plausible that MHCP may
promote improved cognition
by activating an insulin-
mediated pathway in specific
regions of the brain.

A few years ago, researchers at the United States Department of Agriculture investigated the effects on glucose metabolism of 49 different herbs, spices, and medicinal plants that were believed to affect blood sugar levels.6 Their results demonstrated that a certain cinnamon extract was far and away the most effective in promoting glucose metabolism. Cinnamon contains a particularly active component, methylhydroxychalcone polymer (MHCP), which mimics insulin function in important ways. In cultured-cell assays, MHCP activates some of the same cellular pathways as insulin; it specifically increases glucose uptake by cells, and it signals certain kinds of cells to convert glucose to glycogen for energy storage.7

MHCP May Improve Cognitive Function

Since we know that MHCP can mimic insulin function in some biological pathways, an obvious question is whether MHCP will help to improve cognition. To date, no research has been conducted to relate the benefits of MHCP to cognitive function, but what we do know is that MHCP mimics insulin in laboratory studies and that insulin increases cognitive function in healthy adults. So, if we connect the research dots, it is plausible to think that MHCP may promote improved cognition by activating an insulin-mediated pathway in specific regions of the brain.

While it is often said that variety is the spice of life, cinnamon may be the spice that allows you to enjoy life's rich variety. Rather than take large amounts of cinnamon powder every day, however, it is preferable and more convenient to take its most potent component, MHCP. Doing so may help you achieve optimal nutritional balance in the most complex piece of machinery in your body: your brain.

MHCP is a compound purified from cinnamon that mimics the functions of insulin in important ways.

References

  1. Kern W, Peters A, Fruehwald-Schultes B, et al. Improving influence of insulin on cognitive functions in humans. Neuroendocrinology 2001;74: 270-80.
  2. Strachan MW, Deary IJ, Ewing FM, Frier BM. Is type II diabetes associated with an increased risk of cognitive dysfunction? A critical review of published studies. Diabetes Care 1997;20(3):438-45.
  3. Cosway R, Strachan MWJ, Dougall A, Frier BM, Deary IJ. Cognitive function and information processing in type 2 diabetes. Diabetic Med 2001;18:803-10.
  4. Gregg EW, Yaffe K, Cauley JA, et al. Is diabetes associated with cognitive impairment and cognitive decline among older women? Study of Osteoporotic Fractures Research Group. Arch Intern Med 2000;160(2): 141-3.
  5. Messier C, Gagnon M. Glucose regulation and brain aging. J Nutr Health Aging 2000;4(4):208-13.
  6. Broadhurst CL, Polansky MM, Anderson RA. Insulin-like biological activity of culinary and medicinal plant aqueous extracts in vitro. J Agric Food Chem 2000;48:849-52.
  7. Jarvill-Taylor KY, Anderson RA, Graves DJ. A hydroxychalcone derived from cinnamon functions as a mimetic for insulin in 3T3-L1 adipocytes. J Am Coll Nutr 2001;20(4):327-36.


Dr. Jensen is a cell biologist who has conducted research in England, Germany, and the United States. He has taught college courses in biology and nutrition and has written extensively on medical and scientific topics.


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