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Neuromyths about brain function

Strolling through the virtual aisles of Amazon and looking for brain-related literature becomes overwhelming quickly. In addition to scientific books written by scientists, educators, and physicians with neuroscientific training, there are a plethora of other brain-related publications. Their catching titles imply that by reading these books, you will be able to “hack,” “boost,” “turbocharge, “and “optimize” your brain for greater success in life. 

The metrics for such a success are not precisely defined besides that the consumer of these “smart pills” containing “nootropics” will “heighten your cognitive abilities,” “boost your mood,” “elevate your perception,” and “supercharge your memory.” 

This all sounds nice and promising, making the audience think that just by taking the miracle pills designed by “neurohackers” will excel us beyond human limits into Cyborg territory.

As with fiction in general, these stories are created around some core truths and spun out to neuromyths. As aptly identified by Christopher Bergland in his article in Psychology Today, “Neuromyths are common misconceptions about how the mind and brain function.” This is a very elegant description of this problem. Neuromyths are similar to a belief system, mostly resistant to scientific data and facts. Neuromyths are a faith-based belief system, whereas Neuroscience is an evidence-based belief system.

Neuromyths do not attempt to distinguish between fact and fiction, do not seek unbiased evaluation of evidence, and have no mechanism to avoid bias created by individual beliefs of each and every human. In short, neuromyths are faith-based mental constructs, supported only by the individual or at best anecdotal observations. The faith to these myths is continuously fed through “knowledge” disseminated by “authorities” in brain modulation, enhancement, or hacking.

The juxtaposition with Neuroscience is not created to imply a lesser value to or completely dismiss Neuromyths. It just reveals that the general population is fascinated by the functioning of our brain and seeks and demands education in this matter. Unfortunately, this is where neuroscience educators failed their audience. 

Generators of neuromyths responded to this demand faster than neuroscientists. Neuroscientists failed to educate their audience with facts and insights. This void was quickly filled by pseudoscience and anecdotal observations of “opinion leaders” and “influencers.”

Over time, if enough people agree on the “truth” of the neuromyths, the belief-system is further solidified and immune against verification. However, we are currently not in a dogmatic standstill.

I do believe that neuromyths and neuroscience are not mutually exclusive. Neuroscience can help clarify some myths about the brain. In contrast, neuromyths can force neuroscience to share their knowledge in a more accessible language. Ultimately we can believe in facts.

A simple example is a discussion about neurotransmitters, specifically acetylcholine. Neurons, brain’s functional cells, use neurotransmitters to communicate with each other to control bodily functions, such as skeletal muscle contraction, heartbeat, and digestion. Acetylcholine is one of these. It is mainly produced in neurons and requires the compounds choline and Acetyl-Coenzyme A and the enzyme choline acetyltransferase.

Choline + Acetyl Coenzyme A= Acetylcholine +Coenzyme A

But where does Choline and Acetyl Coenzyme A come from? Choline is produced in our bodies in insufficient amounts. As an essential nutrient, choline must be ingested through a balanced diet containing meats, dairy, fish, and poultry. Malnutrition or bad nutritional habits fail to supply the body with a sufficient amount of choline and must be provided by other means, such as dietary supplements. So far, neuroscience agrees with neuromyths that nutritional supplementation of choline is essential. However, disagreement begins when actions such as boosting acetylcholine levels through brain permeable drugs are claimed.

Acetylcholine production in our brain cells is very tightly regulated to avoid any unwanted and uncoordinated actions of this vital neurotransmitter. Excessive acetylcholine is broken down and removed by acetylcholinesterase. In addition, acetylcholine is stored in so-called neurotransmitter vesicles in synapses of neurons. Synapses are the point of contacts between neurons. Acetylcholine is released from the vesicles into the space between synapse and the membrane of the target neuron. Once released and executed its function, acetylcholine is rapidly broken down by acetylcholinesterase, recycled and repacked into synaptic vesicles. Only released acetylcholine is functional, not the ones stored in vesicles. Hence, in a healthy individual with a balanced diet, boosting acetylcholine concentration beyond the required and tightly regulated level will not further energize, sharpen focus, or improve memory beyond physiological levels. The more, the merrier motto does not work here and, in general, in the brain. Therefore, we can agree that choline (but not acetylcholine, its produced in the neuron) supplementation is beneficial in adverse dietary conditions but will provide limited benefits in healthy individuals with balanced diets.

There are two ways of keeping acetylcholine at physiological levels. Dietary supplementation is one option; inhibiting acetylcholinesterase is another one.

One of the primary sources for choline in dietary supplements is Alpha-GPC, a very potent precursor for choline used in acetylcholine production. In animal models, Alpha-GPC had significant benefits. Studies in humans are limited but continuously expanding. So far, human trials indicate the beneficial effects of Alpha-GPC.

Inhibition of acetylcholinesterase is another way to improve acetylcholine levels. Huperzine A is a potent inhibitor of acetylcholinesterase, and overdose can be disastrous. The recommended amount is between 50 and 200 microgram. However, when carefully balanced to act synergistically with choline suppliers, Huperzine A levels can be lowered down to 8 micrograms and still have the desired effect.

As long as we keep an open mind, are familiar with the basics of brain function, and get information from reliable scientific sources, the use of dietary supplements can be life-enhancing.

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