I’m usually pleased to find that everyday vitamins and minerals can be helpful for large-scale health issues. I spend a lot of my work researching new herbal remedies, or older herbal supplements for novel uses, but I’ve recently been combing through scientific literature about Vitamin B1, or Thiamine, and its use as a nootropic (“smart” drug).
Cognitive Impairment (CI), is definitely one of those large-scale health concerns–more than 1 in 9 adults will suffer some form of CI. So if there’s any evidence that an essential vitamin or mineral can help with CI, it can be a great hope to millions of people.
Among the most scary CI diseases, Beriberi has been linked with an inability to speak, difficulty walking, confusion, and even partial paralysis. Thankfully, it is also solely caused by Thiamine deficiency, an easy enough fix for most people.
Along with Beriberi disease, there is also Wernicke-Korsakoff disease, a brain illness that is actually two different syndromes, and is commonly associated with Alzheimer’s Disease. Wernicke-Korsakoff is also caused by a lack of Thiamine.
The science behind diseases caused by a lack of Thiamine then takes us directly into research that has built off of that; if a lack of Thiamine can cause brain disease, can boosting Thiamine improve cognitive function?
Even by conservative estimates, over ten percent of some groups of people are taking “brain boosters.” These over-the-counter supplements range from caffeine to vitamins to things in strange bottles at gas station registers.
It’s usually easier to find good science behind traditional vitamins and minerals. That doesn’t mean the science proves a link–only that there’s science being conducted.
Treating Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)
Current research has linked several factors into the causes and effects of AD. First factor, elderly people have something called synaptic hypometabolism. “Hypo-” means “under,” and in this case means that elderly people aren’t processing glucose (sugar) into neuronal function. Second factor, Thiamine is absolutely essential for processing glucose in the brain.
These two factors taken together have urged researchers to call on the Alzheimer’s Association to conduct clinical trials for Thiamine to not only treat but prevent AD. These sorts of calls to research are never made lightly, and never made when there isn’t a large basis of scientific evidence to support it.
Some research into the afore-mentioned Wernicke-Korsakoff disease has already been conducted, and found that there were benefits of as little as 100 mg of Thiamine–and notably, not much difference between 100, 200, and 300 mg of dose. Authors were careful to note, however, that complicating variables may have caused discrepancies in data.
This all may sound well and good if someone has AD concerns, but what about someone who is healthy, someone who doesn’t have Thiamine-deficiency? Researchers some time back, publishing in the journal Psychopharmacology, set about to find out.
They conducted a placebo-controlled study with over hundred people over two months, with just 50 mg of Thiamine per day. Reaction and memory tests were conducted before and after, and questionnaires were filled out as well; this gives us objective, empirical data, as well as subjective, personal data.
In both cases, researchers found subjects taking Thiamine had better reaction times, better mood, more focus, and more mental energy. An important detail about this study, all of the participants were deemed to have healthy levels of Thiamine already. This means that it could prove an important supplement to add, even for people who are already getting enough of it.
Alternative to Thiamine
Given that all of the B Vitamins are water-soluble, some researchers have turned to finding different ways to get the molecular components of Thiamine into the body and brain. One such method was actually developed as far back as the 1950s, and it’s called benfotiamine (BFT).
BFT has been studied extensively for its cognitive improvement effects, and is widely considered one of the most effective nootropics.
The main reason for bringing up BFT is that molecularly, it relies on the same mechanism–getting a Thiamine compound, thiamine diphosphate (ThDP), into the brain cells so they can metabolize glucose for better cognitive function.
While most of the literature into actual clinical trials is centered around AD, it shouldn’t be dismissed by people in the general population. Much of the scientific data so far amassed shows a direct link between Thiamine and cognitive function–it just so happens that Thiamine is so promising for treatment of AD that research funding has landed in those labs rather than general nootropics study.
For preventing or improving cognitive decline, Thiamine has not only been demonstrably effective for several brain diseases, but also in a population of healthy individuals. More research would obviously cement these findings, but the current field has fairly well established a correlation.