Creatine has long been in the spotlight for increased sports performance, but it’s now being recognized for having positive effects on brain function like cognition and memory.
Supporting research has found creatine supplementation effective for vegetarians and the elderly. Levels of creatine are lower in vegetarians due to diet (creatine is found mostly in meat, fish, and other animal products) and the elderly due to decreased muscle and metabolism (1, 2).
How creatine supplementation influences brain functioning has been investigated by imaging studies and the measurement of oxygenated blood flow (3). Based on this research, creatine appears to be vital to brain function by protecting against cognitive decline during times of stress, aging, or altered nutritional intake (4).
The link between creatine and brain health is an issue of fuel supply. Creatine is a natural compound found in all tissues of the body, not just muscle, and helps form a molecule called ATP. Every single cell in your body runs on ATP. You can think of ATP as the currency of your body. Whether we stock up on carbs or fat, eventually those raw materials get transformed into ATP. When ATP is broken down, it releases energy that drives every function of the cell. We “spend” ATP faster when we are more active.
Creatine helps make ATP at a faster rate. When we use our brain in critical thinking, the brain spends a large amount of ATP to keep our cognition constant, allowing us to make the best decisions (4). Creatine helps this process by increasing ATP in times of need. Creatine also seems to have an effect on glucose regulation, which is a very important source of fuel to the brain (5, 6). Research suggests creatine plays a large part in maintaining cellular energy in the tissues of brain.
In a double-blind, plabebo-controlled trial, creatine was given to 24 healthy young volunteers and their performance was assessed by mathematical calculations for 15 minutes, followed by five minutes rest, then another 15 minutes of calculation. Performance on the last 15 minutes decreased from mental fatigue. However, when subjects supplemented with creatine, their performance was significantly better in comparison (7).
In another study, creatine supplementation over six weeks was found to enhance intelligence test scores and working memory performance in 45 vegetarians in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover design (2). These studies demonstrated creatine’s role in influencing brain performance.
Apart from boosting brain performance, some research shows creatine may assist the elderly in protecting against cognitive decline. Reduced creatine levels are detrimental since creatine sends quick bursts of energy to the brain (4).
Not surprisingly, higher levels of creatine in the brains of older people have been associated with better cognitive function and memory (1). Cognitive tasks that require high-energy brain output rely on creatine to maintain cellular energy. Moreover, creatine supplementation may help manage homocysteine levels in the blood stream, higher levels of which are associated with cognitive decline. Luckily, researchers have found the supplemental form of creatine to increase the levels of creatine in the brain of older subjects (1).
While the evidence for cognitive enhancement seems to work best in those with lower baseline bioenergetics like the elderly and vegetarians, the research suggests it also works in healthy young adults.
Are you investing in your brain’s energy currency?
- Rawson ES & Venezia AC. Use of creatine in the elderly and evidence for effects on cognitive function in young and old. Amino Acids. 2011 May; 40(5):1349-62.
- Rae C, Digney AL, McEwan SR & Bates TC. Oral creatine monohydrate supplementation improves brain performance: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over trial. Proc Biol Sci. 2003 Oct 22; 270(1529): 2147–2150.
- Benton D & Donohoe R. The influence of creatine supplementation on the cognitive functioning of vegetarians and omnivores. Br J Nutr. 2011 Apr; 105(7):1100-5.
- Rae CD & Bröer S. Creatine as a booster for human brain function. How might it work? Neurochem Int. 2015 Aug 18. pii: S0197-0186(15)30038-3.
- Rooney KB, Bryson JM, Digney AL, Rae CD & Thompson CH. Creatine supplementation affects glucose homeostasis but not insulin secretion in humans. Ann Nutr Metab. 2003; 47(1):11-5.
- Gualano B, et al. Effects of creatine supplementation on glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity in sedentary healthy males undergoing aerobic training. Amino Acids. 2008 Feb;34(2):245-50. Epub 2007 Mar 30.
- Watanabe A, Kato N & Kato T. Effects of creatine on mental fatigue and cerebral hemoglobin oxygenation. Neurosci Res. 2002 Apr; 42(4):279-85.