Acetyl-L-Carnitine and Cognitive Function

Amino acids are the body’s building blocks for protein, and L-carnitine is one that is made naturally in the liver and kidneys and is important for production of energy.  Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter which is essential for healthy mental function, and when this is combined with L-carnitine, Acetyl-L-carnitine or ALCAR is formed.  In recent years, ALCAR supplements have become popular as a method for improved cognitive function.

Some L-carnitine can be converted to acetyl-L-carnitine in the body, but with high bioavailability, supplemental ALCAR is said to be better for the brain. Supplemental ALCAR has been used in the treatment of dementia, for improved visual memory and attention in the treatment of downs syndrome patients and for reduction in the severity of depressive symptoms in the elderly.  

ALCAR is said to enhance spatial and temporal memory and to reduce oxidative damage in the hippocampus area of the brain which impacts memory.  It has also been used as a treatment for thinking problems related to alcoholism and Lyme disease and to improve circulation within the brain.

Many studies have examined the effects of Acetyl-L-carnitine on cognitive function.  One Italian study looked at the effects of ALCAR on learning and memory deficits in aged rats.  Treatment with acetyl-L-carnitine showed significant improvement in acquisition and retention of avoidance responses in rats, which indicated improved learning and memory capacity.

In another study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, acetyl-L-carnitine was given to seven patients likely to have Alzheimer’s disease.  These subjects were compared over the course of one year with five placebo-treated patients who were also likely to have Alzheimer’s disease and 21 healthy subjects who were matched in age.  Test scores for cognition and Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment declined less in the ALCAR-treated patients than in the placebo-treated subjects by a significant margin.

More research from the University of California School of Medicine in San Diego examined 431 patients in a double-blind, placebo controlled, parallel-group study over the course of one year.  This study compared the effects of ALCAR with a placebo in patients with likely, mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.  83% of the individuals completed one full year of treatment.

When early-onset (65 years of age or younger) patients were compared with late-onset (older than 66 years of age) patients, the early-onset patients taking ALCAR declined less quickly than early-onset patients taking a placebo in cognitive and Alzheimer’s assessment tests.

In addition, early-onset patients taking the placebo declined more rapidly than late-onset patients in this group. However, late-onset patients on ALCAR tended to decline more rapidly than early-onset patients in this group. This suggests that early-onset AD patients may benefit from treatment with ALCAR whereas late-onset individuals might not.
Acetyl-L-carnitine continues to be investigated for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive health issues.  ALCAR seems to have an effect on the central nervous system, but a clear pharmacological explanation for improved cognition has yet to be identified.

A word of caution:  Always check with a health care provider before taking any kind of supplement.  Acetyl-L-carnitine can impact people with hypothyroidism, seizure disorders or those who are taking Coumadin or other anti-clotting medications.


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