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Does choline improve memory? I forget

Dear Cecil:

I have heard that choline improves memory. This sounds intriguing, although I forget why. Before I embark on some costly vitamin regimen, I have some questions. Will choline help you remember things from long ago, or will it make today more memorable when you're older? Is choline good for trivia? Would you take it before going on Jeopardy, or if you want to remember a whole bunch of names at a party? Does it help you with things you want to remember, or will it dredge up irritating or useless memories, like how to use a slide rule? Will it reinforce Jungian collective species memory and/or past lives? Does Shirley MacLaine take it? What was I asking about?

Glenn Worthman, Palo Alto, California

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

PS: Oops. Forgot to send this.

Dear Glenn:

Another comedian. Originally it was hoped choline would improve the memory of Alzheimer’s victims, not normal people, a category we’ll generously assume includes you. In the interest of thoroughness, though, they also tried it on people who were merely a bit absentminded. (They didn’t actually hand out choline tablets; they dosed people with a variety of substances that raised choline levels in the blood, including lecithin, a common food additive.)

Judging from reports in the scientific journals, choline therapy was pretty much a bust, although a few folks seemed to benefit. Who knows, you might be one of them, so try it if you want. (Cecil, prone to absentmindedness himself but reluctant to eat stuff that sounds like you’d evacuate the town if it spilled out of a tank car, tried the old trick of tying a string around his finger. Invariably this left him wondering an hour later: why did I tie this string around my finger?)

Choline research started in a big way in 1976 when scientists reported that Alzheimer’s victims had abnormally low levels of the enzyme choline acetyltransferase (CAT) in parts of their brains. CAT is a key ingredient of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is essential to memory. After studies showed that just eating choline, lecithin, or whatever wouldn’t improve matters much, researchers interested in the “cholinergic hypothesis” tried various alternative strategies, cooking up drugs “designed to protect acetylcholine from being broken down by enzymes, to cause the brain to produce more of it, or to render what there is more potent,” according to a 1991 report in Scientific American.

At least one such drug, tacrine (it inhibits acetylcholine breakdown), has been approved for treatment of Alzheimer’s, but it generally produces only slight improvement in some patients and has side effects ranging from stomach upset to liver impairment. Research continues. I’ll keep you posted, if I can remember.

Cecil Adams

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