Do nutritional supplements improve brain function?

Brian Tanzer
Nutrition & Dietetics

This is not an easy question to answer. The main reason is that it depends upon what the person's brain and cognitive function is at the time they start taking specific nutritional supplements. For example, in most of the studies involving specific nutritional supplements and brain function, those individuals with cognitive impairment such as those with dementia, Alzheimer's Disease, poor memory, etc. will likely benefit most from specific nutritional supplements. These supplements include B-complex vitamins, Phosphatidylseine, alpha GPC and DHA. There are some supplements that we know help support and protect healthy brain structure and function, but, one may not notice any significant changes in cognitive function when taking. These include acetyl-L-carnitine, alpha lipoic acid, omega-3 fats like EPA and DHA. All of these help protect the brain from various environmental and endogenous free radical sources and provide many other benefits for brain health.

One should look at the research in this area as found on pubmed, National Library of Medicine website. This is the best site for access to published scientific studies in this specific category of nutritional supplements and their potential benefits for brain health.

Alan Gaby
Nutrition & Dietetics

Specific nutritional supplements can improve brain function in specific circumstances. For example, some people with dementia appear to have a decreased capacity to transport vitamin B12 from the bloodstream into the brain (J Orthomolec Psychiatry 1983;12:305-311). This defect can be overcome (with an improvement in the dementia) by giving intramuscular injections of vitamin B12 (although oral B12 is not effective in this situation).

Iron deficiency is a relatively common cause of impaired brain function. Correction of iron deficiency has been reported to improve cognitive function in adolescent girls and young women, regardless of whether the deficiency was severe enough to cause anemia (Lancet 1996;348:992-996). However, iron can have adverse effects in people who are not deficient, so iron supplementation should be prescribed and monitored by a doctor.

In a double-blind trial, supplementation with a multivitamin-multimineral preparation improved verbal learning and memory in schoolchildren, even children who were considered to be well nourished (Am J Clin Nutr 2007;86:1082-1-93).

Other nutrients that may improve cognitive function or prevent age-related cognitive decline in selected cases include B vitamins, magnesium, and acetyl-L-carnitine (See Gaby AR. Nutritional Medicine, chapters 285 and 286.

Lynne Kenney
There are all kinds of claims for the abilities of nutritional supplements to enhance cognition. For example, vitamin B6 has been found to enhance memory (but far from conclusively) and there are many other claims being made by marketers for vitamins E, B12, folate, neurosteroids and so on.

However, in reviewing the research the Academy of Medical Sciences points out that most of the studies are few, far between and small in scope.

Verdict: Unproven, but probably not dangerous as long as you’re not exceeding the recommended daily allowances. On the downside supplements can be costly.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.