Certain vitamins and minerals become trendy because a celebrity endorses them, or because they’re heavily featured in a popular product. Others, like Biotin (Vitamin B7), become because related vitamins are on the rise. Biotin has been swept up in the B Vitamin craze, with some surveys indicating that Biotin supplementation has grown by a staggering 2,800%.
Those survey numbers, I should note, are for supplement levels of 1 mg–28 times higher than the “adequate” amount set by the Food and Nutrition Board (30 mcg). Part of the craze around Biotin can be accredited to the fad for B Vitamins, but it’s also been purported to help with Cognitive Function, and is included in a number of nootropics. In this article, I’ll review the scientific literature for any support for Biotin and brain function.
Chemistry of Biotin
Without getting into an organic chemistry lesson, we can still identify some of the key roles that Biotin plays in the body. This will go a long way toward understanding why it is so important for brain health.
The primary calorie for our brains is glucose, a bioavailable form of sugar. In order for our brains to operate optimally, they need ready forms of glucose, and the mechanisms to metabolize it.
Metabolizing a calorie (protein, fat, or sugar) involves a slightly different process for each, but the basic mechanism for the brain and sugar is that the synaptic neuron end requires ions (the smallest part of an atom) to cross the cell barrier (exocytosis); when the ion crosses to the next cell, it triggers the synapse–the most basic function of the brain. Separating ions from atom to another is an energy-draining process–which is why we need calories like glucose to fuel it.
Biotin, like Thiamine, is essential for the use of glucose in these processes. That’s why doctors initially began studying B vitamins–people with diabetes or other sugar-intake issues often suffer from neural or cognitive impairment, even when the raw sugar levels have been adjusted. Researchers have noted alarming deficiencies in Vitamin B among diabetes II patients.
Studies on Cognitive Impairment
Researchers in any field will test for negative and positive results–not negative “bad,” or positive “good,” but negative “nothing happened,” or positive “something happened.” With Vitamin B research, this becomes tricky because most people get quite enough of each of them in their diets. And it’s not ethical to intentionally deprive people of a vital nutrient to study the effects.
That leaves us with three options for study: observing people already Vitamin B deficient; studying animals; and using living human tissue in a lab, known as in vitro testing.
Vitamin B Deficiency
Populations lacking Vitamin B have been studied since at least the turn of the 20th century, when observers noted that people and animals lacking certain foods developed illnesses (scurvy and beriberi, notably). Fast-forward to the present day, and the process for identifying a vitamin deficiency is largely the same.
Case in point, researchers have now compiled a solid causal link between the lack of B Vitamins and certain brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. Research of this kind is as close as scientists can ethically come to observing a nutrient deficiency in a human population.
Animals do not have the same rights as humans, and no matter what someone’s stance on animal rights, the fact is that scientists do derive invaluable data from tests on our mammalian cousins. For instance, a study of Wistar rats concluded that depriving a mammal brain of Biotin severely impaired memory, cognitive function, and even dopamine levels.
In Vitro Combined with Animal Study
In a groundbreaking study from just a couple of years ago, scientists experimented with not only the chemical and molecular function of Biotin on a cellular level, but they injected flies with actual human brain cells afflicted with Alzheimer’s and gauged the effect of supplementing with Biotin.
Their research showed two important things:
(Tau cells are specialized proteins that are absolutely necessary for proper brain function. Alzheimer’s researchers have determined that entangled, mutated, and over-accumulated tau-proteins are a leading indicator of degenerative brain diseases.)
So far there have been no peer-reviewed studies of Biotin and the cognitive function of healthy, younger adults. That may be because research funding on the topic has been devoted primarily to deadly diseases, and in some cases, the development of underprivileged children. It could also owe to the fact that the overwhelming majority of adults already get what experts deem to be enough Biotin.
Whatever the case, we can determine from the body of scientific literature on the subject that deprivation of Biotin can have damaging, even lethal consequences. We can also see that on the emerging margins of research, Biotin may well save damaged brain cells. Further research is needed to find if it can have benefits for people already getting Biotin in their diets, or if these results can only be found in deficient populations, or those with a disease.