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Can functional ingredients contribute to brain health and mental performance?

Never before have humans been confronted with such substantial changes in their environment and lifestyle. During the last 100 years, our whole experience of time and space has changed fundamentally. Considering the time that adaptive processes in biological systems require, it may not be surprising to learn that there is a rise in the proportion of the population that seems to suffer from "maladaption." Despite the fact that the causality is complex, indications are accumulating that suggest that nutrition may play an important role in the growing percentage of people who suffer from developmental disorders, ADHD, depression and other mental conditions.

The brain, together with the enteric nervous system, represents the central site of metabolic regulation. This control system consists of incalculable amounts of receptors that are distributed all over the body to manage an appropriate nutrient intake. For example, Hoodia--an ingredient that gained a lot of attention for satiety and weight management--affects the hypothalamus, a site of nutrient sensing in the brain. (1) The principle seems to be simple: ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is a kind of "energy currency" in biological systems, is elevated by the intake of Hoodia. Consequently, the brain signals: "enough energy is available; caloric intake can be reduced." Considering that nutrition is not just energy intake, but also represents the building blocks for regeneration, for metabolic catalysts (enzymes that need trace elements as cofactors), hormones and neurotransmitters, a complex network has to be controlled--and imbalances may have a significant impact.

Thus, it may be surprising to learn that the influence of appropriate nutrition on mental health and performance is only just becoming established. When I was a child, I was forced to take a spoonful of cod liver oil every day to prevent rickets, caused by vitamin D deficiency. At the time, I hated this (and was envious of friends who could take their vitamins as a yummy syrup!); but today, I am grateful to my parents because they guaranteed me a constant supply of omega-3 fatty acids, which have no doubt have been helpful for my development.

Environmental Influences on Mental Health and Performance

Mental performance depends on a complex network of parameters that can partially be influenced by nutrition (Figure 1). To give an example: a higher intake of marine polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) improves the quality of nerves and blood vessels (anatomical parameters) and, hence, the transportation of essential nutrients to the brain. By contrast, the consumption of chocolate may contribute to a better mood (psychological parameter), resulting not only from the taste but also from the fact that chocolate contains the amino acid, tryptophan, which represents a precursor of the neurotransmitter serotonin, one of the "feel-good hormones" (physiological parameter).

Eating habits are determined by geography, culture, religion and social status. With globalization, the variety of available food increases constantly and changes our eating habits. Are there downsides to all this choice? Today, the situation is complicated. On the one hand, we can eat more healthily than ever before, thanks to the all-year access to fresh fruits, vegetables and fish. On the other hand, people in Europe suffer from a lack of trace elements, vitamins and essential fatty acids that may result in impaired mental performance or mood disorders. (2,3) One possible cause of the deficiency in fat-soluble vitamins may be the increasing consumption of fat-reduced food.

Because such mental impairment develops slowly, one cannot perceive the lack of acuity until a severe loss of function occurs or the person falls ill. And even then, a deficit of essential nutrients is rarely considered. Figure 2 illustrates a selection of mental dysfunctions that are thought to be caused by nutritional imbalances.

Recent research has revealed that several nutritional disorders seem to be "programmed in early foetal development and childhood." To study the impact in more detail, the EU is funding a research programme called EARNEST (the Early Nutrition Programming Project). The EARNEST project aims to

* Help formulate policies on the composition and testing of infant foods to improve the nutritional value of infant formulas

* Identify interventions to prevent and reverse adverse early nutritional programming. (4)



Another important factor is stress, the effect of which has been underestimated for a long time. Today it is known that stress is not only a personal feeling of discomfort, but that it also has a strong physiological and medical impact. Sustained stress can damage the hippocampus, the area in the brain that is central to learning and memory. Chronic over-secretion of stress hormones by the HPA (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal) stress axis leads to increased cortisol levels in the brain, affecting neuronal cells. In a study of combat veterans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed a reduction in the volume of the hippocampus that was correlated with deficits in verbal memory during neuropsychological testing. (5)

Recent stress research has revealed a decreasing capacity of aged organisms to respond appropriately to stress, and the capacity of stress to damage ageing tissue. Aged and young individuals have similar body functions under normal conditions, but the older ones cannot adequately respond to a given stress challenge. (6) Hippocampal damage can be reversed, however, contrary to the assumptions of recent decades. Neurogenesis occurs even in the adult brain and, thus, the hippocampus can recover ... as should cognitive performance. (7) Stress is a leading cause of cardiac diseases and psychological disorders. (8) Nutrients that could either help to reduce mental stress or reduce undesired physiological effects in the body may contribute to public health.


Growing Brain Fitness Market

People want to contribute to their mental health, especially when they are getting older. As such, the brain fitness market is growing. Consumers can choose from cognitive training gadgets, internet online training, functional foods dedicated to better performance or mood improvement and so on. Brain supplements that promise "mental sharpness," chocolate that "stimulates concentration" and juices (containing phosphatidylserine and lecithin), which support schoolchildren during their examinations, are already on the market. Water-based wellness drinks that claim a balancing effect are increasingly available, containing ingredients such as gingko or ginseng. But, is there any science behind these products?

Nutritional Approaches to Brain-Food

Mental performance and mental health can indeed be influenced by nutrition. Several approaches are possible:

* a contribution to proper development in children

* performance enhancement and preventive stress reduction in young adults and the middle-aged

* support for functional maintenance in the elderly.


Proper development and functional maintenance may be more related to long-term effects and structural changes, whereas performance and stress reduction are likely to be achieved using short-term solutions based on neuronal effects. For example, the replacement of saturated fatty acids in membranes with healthier polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) takes at least 2 weeks to present, depending on the target tissue. By contrast, an increase in vitamin levels to prevent oxidative stress takes only hours to manifest itself. And stress reduction induced by the intake of botanicals may occur within an hour, but the effects do not last longer than 6-8 hours, depending on the bioavailability and metabolism of the substance.

Bioavailability of Functional Ingredients

Research has shown that the chosen food matrix influences the bioavailability of functional ingredients. Carrero and co-workers demonstrated that small amounts of marine omega-3 fatty acids (PUFAs) in skimmed milk resulted in significant 20% and 33% increases in the plasma levels of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), respectively. They also discussed whether the fact that milk fat is highly dispersed in very small micelles (increased surface area) might facilitate the absorption. (9) In products enriched with several active ingredients, undesired interactions have to be controlled. And the most important factor--taste--needs to be considered as a priority. The taste of many healthy ingredients has to be masked. In general, the desired claim will determine the choice of the best ingredient and the food matrix.

Perspective Depends on Research and Effective Communication

Most consumers find it difficult to follow the recommendations for the intake of healthy food because of their own, long-established eating habits. Functional foods and/or the intake of dietary supplements may help to support a healthy lifestyle through the controlled consumption of nutrients. Unfortunately, product claims are currently mostly non-specific or only represent nutrient content claims such as "contains GABA" (a neurotransmitter). I doubt whether the majority of consumers understand this claim. I have repeatedly asked my friends what they know about omega-3 fatty acids and, in most cases, they have no idea. For those of us involved in this industry, functional ingredients are so familiar that we cannot imagine why consumers do not welcome our products with open arms. Clearly, we need to invest more time and resources in telling an intriguing story that they can really understand. For both regulatory reasons and the strength of competition in the industry, companies will increasingly be forced to demonstrate the claimed effects in human studies. Brain health is a complex topic and claims cannot be derived from biomarkers alone; the development and evaluation of appropriate and comparable test systems, as well as clinical proof in the human system, is also necessary.

For me, the most interesting question remains whether we will be able to "reset" early nutritional programming and thus make a contribution to public health and well-being. And what kinds of "brain-food" will we see during the next few years: product choices such as a meal that helps to prevent drowsiness after lunch, perhaps; a soup that improves mental performance; or a drink that helps us to learn better?


(1.) D. MacLean and L. Lu-Guang Luo, "Increased ATP Content/Production in the Hypothalamus May be a Signal for Energy-Sensing of Satiety: Studies of the Anorectic Mechanism of Plant Steroidal Glycoside," Brain Res. 1020, 1-11 (2004).

(2.) M. Holick, "Vitamin D Deficiency," N. Engl. J. Med. 357, 266-291 (2007).

(3.) M. Freemann, et al., "Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Evidence Basis for Treatment and Future Research in Psychiatry," J. Clin. Psychiatry 67, 1954-1967 (2006).

(4.) The Early Nutrition Programming Project (

(5.) J. Bremner, "Does Stress Damage the Brain?" Biol. Psychiatry 45, 797-805 (1999).

(6.) R. Sapolsky, L. Krey and B. McEwen, "The Neuroendocrinology of Stress and Aging: The Glucocorticoid Cascade Hypothesis," Endocr. Rev. 7(3), 284-301 (1986).

(7.) M. Bain, S. Dwyer and B. Rusak, "Restraint Stress Affects Hippocampal Cell Proliferation Differently in Rats and Mice," Neurosci. Lett. 368, 7-10 (2004).

(8.) P. Surtees, et al., "Psychological Distress, Major Depressive Disorder and Risk of Stroke," Neurology 70, 788-794 (2008).

(9.) J. Carrero, et al., "Cardiovascular Effects of Milk Enriched with ?-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids, Oleic Acid, Folic Acid and Vitamins E and B6 in Volunteers with Mild Hyperlipidemia," Nutrition 20, 521-527 (2004).

For more information

Dr Claudia Scholz

Research Platform Manager

Cognis GmbH

Rheinpromenade 1

D-40789 Monheim am Rhein, Germany

Tel. +49 3084 312 771
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Author:Scholz, Claudia
Publication:Nutraceutical Business & Technology
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2008
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