The Right Chemistry: Brain health, memory and questionable supplements

I’m used to getting emails that attempt to hook me into watching interminable videos about some “cutting edge breakthrough.”

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I thought I was going to write yet another depressing column about a properly trained medical doctor going astray and trading his soul for profits by promoting questionable dietary supplements. Sometimes, though, you start a journey with a frown and end up with a smile. But let’s start at the beginning.

I’m used to getting emails that attempt to hook me into watching interminable videos about some “cutting edge breakthrough” that will rejuvenate me or at least “turbocharge my brain.” Usually it is some sort of “natural” plant derivative discovered by a maverick scientist who has managed to sidestep the efforts of Big Pharma to sweep this miracle under the carpet. I’m told I can put spring back into my step and restore the twinkle in my eye as my cells are “flooded with a tsunami of life-giving nutrients that have never been made available to the public before.” But I can have them now, while supplies last, for half price, if I order in the next 10 minutes.

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These days, when another one of these travesties against science beckons with a promise to make my “body fire on all cylinders” with some superfood, I just hit “delete.” However, just as I was ready to relegate a message from The Alternative Daily to trash, my eyes got stuck on a sentence. All I had to do to protect my brain was to “avoid certain foods that contain a dangerous enzyme called diacetyl.”

What is wrong with that? Diacetyl is not an enzyme, it is a small, simple molecule that occurs naturally in butter but can also be produced synthetically to impart a buttery taste to popcorn.

What’s dangerous about it? In an occupational setting, as in workers who inhale diacetyl while producing artificial butter flavouring, it has been linked with bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare lung disease, popularly referred to as “popcorn lung.” It has never been associated with any problem when consumed.

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The Alternative Daily attributed the diacetyl-brain connection to “brain health specialist and NASA scientist Dr. Sam Walters” who claims that “diacetyl often passes through the blood brain barrier and can lead to deposits in the brain.” There is no evidence for this. I was then directed to a video by Walters offering the usual tropes about MSG, aspartame, sucralose and aluminum being “Mental Menaces,” and the need to counter their assault with a “one-of-a-kind, multi-spectrum solution” for age-related memory loss that this brilliant scientist had formulated.

Calling diacetyl an enzyme and shilling for a supplement suggested that I had the makings of a “doctor gone astray” story, but it wasn’t long before I was stopped in my tracks. It turns out that Walters isn’t a medical doctor, he is a naturopath! So, he hadn’t really strayed from his profession at all, since dietary supplements and vilification of anything that isn’t “natural” are part and parcel of his trade. Furthermore, being a naturopath hardly qualifies one to be a “brain specialist,” and I was unable to find any evidence that he is a “NASA scientist.” I did learn that he is into homeopathy, spinal manipulation, hyperbaric oxygen therapy and of course, herbal medicine.

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The “Youthful Brain” supplement promoted in the video lists as ingredients “1000 mcg Vitamin B12 dosed at 16,667% Daily Value for maximum mental energy, 280 mg total of Bacopa Monnieri, phosphatidylserine, Ginko Biloba Leaf extract and Huperzine A.” Vitamin B12 does not give you mental energy, and at 16,667 per cent of daily value (ridiculously given to five significant figures) you end up peeing most of it out. Bacopa Monnieri extract is included because it is supposedly favoured by “a secret society of Tibetan monks with steel-trap memories who rarely fall victim to sickness.” Right.

Why Ginkgo Biloba? Because we learn that Ginkgo leaves are the favourite leaf of the elephant, and elephants have spectacular memories. What more evidence can we want? Huperzine, extracted from a type of moss, increases levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine which is indeed important for proper functioning of the nervous system. Phosphatidylserine, found in the membranes of brain cells, can be produced from soy lecithin, and is “the memory molecule of youth,” according to Walters. A few studies have indeed demonstrated some beneficial effects for huperzine and phosphatidylserine, but not at the low doses found in Youthful Brain!

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Walters also pushes “Stem Cell Renew” with its content of wild blueberry fruit powder, organic goji berry, grape extract and Ginkgo. The rationale? Walters claims that the inhabitans of Bapan, China, known as the Longevity Village, owe their long lives to taking such a herbal mix every day. There is absolutely no evidence they do this. Furthermore, renewing stem cells is nonsense.

Bapan villagers really do appear to have unusual longevity. It is likely due to being active, having a strong social fabric, consuming a mostly plant-based diet and being happy with their lives. They smile a lot! And believe it or not, that is predictive of a longer life. Want some scientific evidence? Researchers examined baseball cards released during the 1952 season and rated the photos as “no smile,” “partial smile” or “full smile.” The average lifespan for the “no smilers” was 73 years, for the “partial smilers” was 75 years and for the “full smilers,” 80 years! The results were deemed to be statistically significant. How can this be rationalized? Perhaps people who smile readily are less likely to become stressed as they are buffeted about by the waves of life. Stress is definitely linked with reduced longevity!

I guess instead of frowning with annoyance when some wonder product claims to “flip my stem cell switch on,” I should just smile at the folly of such a promise.

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Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society (mcgill.ca/oss). He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.

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