The new study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, was led by Dr Nick Gant along with Professor Winston Byblow, and PhD student Clare Turner, all from the Faculty of Science, University of Auckland Centre for Brain Research.
“The brain requires a constant supply of oxygen and is highly vulnerable when this supply is reduced by injury or disease,” says Dr Gant. “We set out to help improve the brain’s natural defences and think we’ve discovered a way of doing this.”
The secret to creatine’s success is that it requires no oxygen to make energy. The study found that creatine was stored in areas of the brain that are easily oxygen deprived. “Athletes have been getting an energy boost for their muscles from creatine for over 20 years,” says Dr Gant. “Creatine supplementation increases the amount of useable energy stored in muscle and our research shows it has a similar effect within the brain.”
The team used a combination of advanced neuroscience techniques to study the brains of healthy adults. Participants inhaled air that contained only half the normal amount of oxygen, equivalent to breathing at an altitude of 5,500 meters (Mt Everest base camp). According to Ms Turner, “The supplement increased the amount of creatine stored in the brain by nine percent which prevented the decline in cognitive performance that occurred with a placebo supplement. It also increased neural excitability in parts of the brain that control movement.”
The ability to sustain attention was the area of mental performance that was improved most by creatine. “This is encouraging”, says Professor Byblow. “Attentional capacity, or the ability to sustain focus, is the most commonly impaired process with exposure to high altitude and among survivors of brain injury.”
The study is the first demonstration in humans that shows a short six-day course of this widely available dietary supplement can be neuroprotective. According to Dr Gant, “The study opens up a range of therapeutic applications for this supplement. Neurodegenerative diseases cause energetic vulnerability for which there are currently no effective therapeutic strategies. Also, mountaineers, technical divers and those playing sports where head injury is a risk may be able to protect themselves with creatine supplementation.”
The team is currently investigating creatine as a treatment for concussion and exploring if creatine can help improve the brain’s ability to form new connections.
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