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Sports supplement creatine may improve cognition

Uncertainty shrouds the substance’s effectiveness and side effects

Creatine, a substance that is taken by many athletes to boost muscle size may also pump up the brain, according to several studies done on the compound.

Creatine is naturally produced in the body. Its structure is little more than a backbone, though it can connect to an energy-rich string of atoms once it’s in the body. It is believed that creatine helps cognitive ability through this string of atoms.

The brain guzzles 25 per cent of the sugar used by the body for energy, and 20 per cent of the oxygen. Creatine supplies energy to parts of the brain that need it – so it acts like quick cash for the expensive process of thinking.

McGill student Stefano Spinelli didn’t recall any specific cognitive effects of using creatine, which he used as an athletic supplement. But he did note a general energy boost.

“I felt like I had much more energy, which was helpful mentally,” he said.

Aside from its effects on cognition, recent research published on September 29, in the journal Neurobiology of Aging, suggested that creatine extends lifespan and neurological health in female mice. But whether these results will be supported by further research in humans is unknown.

Although creatine’s effects on cognition have been suspected since at least 2003, creatine still doesn’t have a place beside ritalin and caffeine in the study drug cabinet.

It’s unclear why this is, but controversy over side effects and conflicting study results are the likely culprits.

While the F.D.A deemed creatine safe over the short term, there are worries about its effect on kidneys. Athletes taking standard doses of creatine have around 90 times base levels in their urine. Although there is no evidence that such high levels cause damage in healthy people, there’s cause for worry for individuals with Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD). Creatine accelerates the growth rate of cysts in rats with PKD, which afflicts 1 of 1,000 humans.

Muscle cramps are another danger. because the supplement causes cells and muscles to retain water. Those who don’t drink enough can become dehydrated, which in turn leads to muscle cramps.

Despite these findings, the recent book, Creatine and Creatine Kinase in Health and Disease, pronounced the substance safe in the short term.

“The majority of clinical studies fail to find an increased incidence of side effects with creatine supplementation…[but] few data are available on the long-term consequences of creatine supplementation,” wrote Dr. Eric Rawson.

But there is still some conflict between the few studies that have been done on creatine’s effects on cognition. A study by Dr. Eric Rawson and colleagues concluded that creatine does not increase cognitive ability in young adults who are not cognitively impaired. Conversely, other research, such as a 2006 study performed by Dr. Terry McMorris and colleagues, has found that in sleep-deprived adults, creatine improves performance.

Still others, such as a 2003 study by Dr. Caroline Rae and colleagues, found that creatine improves cognitive performance on memory and intelligence tasks. This study gave subjects five mg of creatine per day, and measured their performance on memorization of a random string of numbers and a standard intelligence test called Ravens Advanced Progressive Matrices. The participants taking creatine performed significantly better on both tasks than those taking a placebo.