Is Creatine Smart?
by Alfredo Franco-Obregón, PhD
Those of you familiar with my writings are well aware of the fact that I am strongly in support of intelligent training methods. In this article, I give this advocacy a unique twist and discuss whether it is possible to train for intelligence. Research has shown that a person's cognitive capacity may remain acute far into advanced age, if practiced throughout life. In a sense, this result suggests that a persons mental fitness improves with training. And since, nutritional supplements plays a big role in modern athletics, this issue also begs the question whether nutritional supplementation may also help maintain mental fitness. In this respect, a pivotal study recently appeared in the scientific press that examined the effects of creatine supplementation on human intelligence (1). This study might change the way you think...
As for any activity we undertake, thought requires energy-or should, in any case. In fact, thinking takes lots of energy. On a per weight basis, the brain is one of the body's highest energy consumers. Although representing only 2% of our total body mass, the brain consumes nearly one quarter of our entire energy resources. The disproportionate amount of energy consumed by our brains is reflected by the fact that the head is generally warmer than the body core temperature; this gives an entire new meaning to the phrase hot head, doesnt it.
Any thought we abstract, any sensation we perceive, or any action we initiate, is encoded by electrical impulses that literally flow throughout our nervous systems. However, unlike the electrical currents that flow through the wires in our homes and that are carried by negatively charged electrons (a part of an atom), the electrical impulses that propagate through our nerve cells, or neurons, are largely mediated by positively charged atoms that, interestingly enough, lack electrons. Such charged atoms are known as ions, nothing more than atoms with an incomplete number of electrons in their outer shell. Electrical currents (carried by positive ions) literally flow through our neurons relaying information from brain to target, and back again.
A neuronal impulse is initiated with the flow of positively charged sodium ions into a neuron. This influx of sodium ions causes a localized accumulation of positive charges near their point of entry at the neuronal membrane. To relieve this buildup of positive charges, potassium ions (also positively charged) respond by flowing outward, since like charges repel each other. This instantaneous switch in ionic polarity can be likened to a spark that rapidly spreads along the entire length of the nerve cell. Obviously, this situation cannot continue forever, otherwise all of the sodium ions would end up on the inside the neuron and all the potassium ions on the outside. Indeed, after a flurry of electrical activity the relative distribution of sodium and potassium (near the membrane) nearly reverses. In order for brain activity to continue, therefore, these ions need to be actively placed back onto their appropriate sides of the membrane. This process is energetically very expensive.
The molecular pumps that are responsible for situating sodium and potassium back to their respective sides of the neuronal membrane are called ATPases; obviously, since they rely on ATP to function. In fact, maintaining these pumps active is the greatest sink of energy in the brain. As in muscle, however, ATP is often limiting. Also analogous to the muscular situation is the fact that phosphocreatine (PCr) is what assures a steady supply of ATP to the cell. PCr thus keeps these ATPases pumping sodium and potassium back into their respective compartments, thereby allowing continual neuronal activity. Figuratively speaking, phosphocreatine keeps us thinking.
So, what does this have to do with creatine?
Recall that PCr is the energized form of creatine that is present within the cell. When we supplement with creatine, what we are in actuality doing is increasing the PCr content of the cell. Therefore, at least in theory, creatine supplementation should influence how well we think under pressure. Food for thought, so to speak. One recent study, furthermore, showed that mice deficient in the enzyme that creates PCr from creatine, creatine kinase, are slower at learning a water maze (2). In other words, the mice with lower levels of PCr erred more often and generally spent more time in the water. The stage was thus set for human studies...
Does creatine supplementation influence mental acuity in humans?
This was the question asked by a recent study conducted at the Universities of Sydney and Macquarie, Australia.
The study examined the effect of creatine supplementation (5 grams/day for six weeks) on the ability to perform two cognitive tests, the Raven's Advanced Progressive Matrices (RAPMs) and Weschler Auditory Backward Digit Span (BDS). These tasks are designed to test non-verbal intelligence (IQ) and verbal memory capacity (short-term memory), respectively.
The authors of the study also chose 45 vegetarians and vegans as experimental subjects. This group of individuals was specifically chosen since their dietary intake of creatine, which was negligible, would not interfere with the amount of creatine administered during the course of the study.
This study consisted of a placebo-controlled, cross-over design. This simply means that each subject served as his own control scenario. Subjects either took creatine or placebo (maltodextrin) for six weeks before performing one of the mental tests (week 6). They then washed out for another six weeks in order that their creatine levels should return to baseline (week 12). Supplementation then commenced anew (six more weeks) using the opposite supplementing condition. During the 18th week they then repeated the same test under the influence of the second supplementing condition. The entire cycle repeated after a washout of another six weeks with the other mental task. Therefore, each subject took each test twice, once under the influence of creatine and once under the influence of placebo.
Subjects who were administered creatine exhibited improved short-term memory and were also better able to problem solve under pressure of time. Specifically, the creatine group was better able to repeat back long sequences of number from memory (BDS). Creatine subjects were on average able to repeat back 1-2 more integers than placebo counterparts. Their general IQ scores were also higher than the placebo group (RAPMs). Quoting directly from the manuscript "Supplementation with creatine significantly increased intelligence compared with placebo."
So, should you take a teaspoon of creatine before your next all-nighter? Although "thought provoking", it's still too early to say. Not all thought processes are alike. This study does seem to suggest, however, that creatine may help with complicated computational tasks.
Who knows, in the future taking a swig of creatine before a cram session may be an accepted practice among university students.
1. Rae, C., Digney, A .L., McEwan, S.R. & Bates, T.C. (September 2003) Oral creatine monohydrate supplementation improves cognitive performance; a placebo-controlled, double-blind cross-over trial. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London - Biological Sciences. Volume 270(1529): pages 2147-2150.
2. Jost, C. R., Van Der Zee C. E., In't Zandt H. J., Oerlemans F., Verheij M., Streijger F., Fransen J., Heerschap A., Cools A. R. & Wieringa B. (May 2002) Creatine kinase B-driven energy transfer in the brain is important for habituation and spatial learning behaviour, mossy fibre field size and determination of seizure susceptibility. European Journal Neuroscience Volume 15 (10): pages 1692-706.