Since niacin (also known as nicotinic acid, niacinamide, and nicotinamide) is such a common vitamin, found in virtually all supplements, few people realize its powers in the brain. For one thing, it is one of the primary boosters of energy production in the tiny factories of the cell, the mitochondria. This gives it a special place in brain protection, because if energy runs down, brain cells function less efficiently; also more free radical damage accumulates in the genes of the cell, potentially leading to its disability and death.
Small wonder that studies find niacin can have profound consequences for brain functioning.
Niacin may help improve memory in adults of any age. Dutch research psychologists at the Free University in Amsterdam tested megadoses of two forms of nicotinic acid on ninety-six healthy adults. Some took the real vitamin, some a placebo for eight weeks. Researchers tested their short-term, long-term, and sensory memories before and after they took the pills.
Conclusion: Niacin boosted memory performance by 10 to 40 percent over placebo. It worked in young brains, middle-aged brains, and elderly brains, boosting short-term, long-term, and sensory memory. Researchers theorize that niacin improves the transmission of electrical impulses between neurons, improving short-term memory circuits. In the elderly, it also facilitated long-term consolidation of memory, perhaps by encouraging synthesis of proteins needed to convert memory from short-term to long-term. How does it work?
Nicotinamide is one of the nutrients known to stimulate energy generation in the cell’s mitochondria. There’s considerable evidence that the vitamin fights free radicals. It can prevent damage to and help repair free-radical-inflicted DNA injuries. Further, it can protect neurons of the substantia nigra, the part of the brain affected by Parkinson’s disease, from damage induced by free-radical-generating neurotoxins.
In one dramatic experiment, Harvard researcher Flint Beal was able to diminish brain cell damage like that in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases by using niacin. He found that adding niacin to the antioxidant coenzyme Q10 helped prevent mitochondrial brain cell destruction when coQ10 alone was ineffective.
NIACIN AND SCHIZOPHRENIA?
Although it’s controversial, some doctors have used B vitamins, notably niacin, to treat schizophrenia. Its most vigorous advocate is Abram Hoffer, M.D., Ph.D., a practitioner of “orthomolecular” medicine and president of the Canadian Schizophrenia Organization, who has used niacin to treat schizophrenia for nearly fifty years in over 4,000 patients. Dr. Hoffer says the first patient who received niacin in 1952 improved within a month and became symptom-free in two years.
He insists that after two years of such orthomolecular treatment, “over 90 percent will be well, none will be worse, and none will have tardive dyskinesia” (a nerve damage from pharmaceutical drugs). His typical dose, which he says most patients must take for a lifetime: 1500 to 6000 niacin as a treatment for schizophrenia, it might be worth a try with proper medical supervision, say some experts, considering the difficulty of treating the disorder.
How much? High doses of niacin in the form of nicotinic acid should only be taken under a doctor’s supervision, because of the potential danger of adverse effects, including liver damage. Most adverse reactions to nicotinic acid, usually used to lower blood cholesterol, have happened from doses of 2000 to 6000 milligrams daily. Experts say the minimum dose for adverse effects from another form of niacin, nicotinamide, is 3000 milligrams per day.
A dose of 125 milligrams of niacin daily should be enough to protect normal brains.