There has been much attention in recent years focused on the medical benefits of lecithin. Phosphatidyl choline (or PC) the active component of lecithin has been shown to be useful in the treatment of high cholesterol and atherosclerosis, heart disease, gallstones, liver cirrhosis and blood clotting disorders. Research has been conducted on lecithin and PC (sometimes called pure lecithin) throughout the world and the results have opened many eyes in the international medical community.
Here we will trace the history of research that has been conducted to test the benefits of lecithin and its active component, PC on ageing and neurological disorders. Many of those involved in this research were considered hopeless in terms of treatment to help the patient.
The idea that choline is involved with learning and memory became popular in the early 1970s from work done Deuch Drachman who later suggested that an age-related malfunctioning of the system in our body that releases choline may be responsible for memory loss in old people. Memory loss was also found in young people when their choline releasing systems were blocked. That observation suggested that young people might get old prematurely.
In 1978 Dr. F. Etienne in Montreal studied seven patients with Alzheimer’s disease. This disorder also called presenile dementia is characterized by mental deterioration and memory loss that begins at middle age. Dr. Etienne and colleagues wanted to test the effect of increasing the amount of choline in a patient’s blood on his learning ability. They used lecithin as a source of choline because they knew that the effect would last longer than an equivalent amount of choline chloride, a drug in popular use at the time.
The results of the study were remarkable. Three of the seven patients appeared to understand faster and more clearly and their speech improved. Their learning ability improved while they were taking lecithin and dropped after lecithin was stopped. The other four patients did not show any clear improvement. For the entire seven patients as a group, scores on learning tests were higher when blood choline levels were high. It was obvious that lecithin (PC) helped these people with Alzheimer’s disease, for which there is no cure and which has a devastating effect on people’s lives. The symptoms often appear in older people, however in Alzheimer’s disease it is the middle aged who are struck whey they otherwise would have many productive and enjoyable years left to their lives.
In 1979 Drs M. Mesulam and S. Weintraub at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, studied six patients with Alzheimer’s disease. After treatment for eight weeks with choline chloride followed by a period of four to eight weeks during which no choline was taken, and finally followed by eight weeks on lecithin, two of the six patients improved. This may not seem like much, but imagine yourself as one of the two patients, especially considering that there is no other useful treatment. After treatment with lecithin, memory improved considerably, as did speech and the entire mode of daily living. One patient who could not perform activities alone before treatment became able to go on errands and did not require supervision any longer. That person was then able to lead a relatively normal life. Another patient who was very slow in thought, speech and movement before treatment, became more alert and able to interact with other people. Both of these people as a result of treatment with lecithin were able to lead more normal lives. The benefits derived from lecithin (PC) were absolutely unheard of previously.
PC Relieves the Symptoms of Tardive Dyskinesia
Drs. A.J. Gelenberg and J.H. Growdon in Boston conducted a study in 1979 on patients with tardive dyskinesia . This disorder is characterized by incomplete movements of voluntary muscles, usually in the face and usually in older people. It is caused mostly by the use of some drugs that treat psychiatric and mood problems. The study involved giving choline chloride and lecithin to five outpatients with mild to severe TD.
After treatment, both groups of people had increased blood choline levels and abnormal movements were reduced. Here again there was significant improvement. Those patients taking lecithin had fewer side effects and showed greater improvement. After treatment was stopped the patients’ abnormal movements increased within several days. Between one and two weeks later, most patients showed the same degree of abnormal movements that they had prior to treatment. Again, lecithin (PC) reduced abnormal muscular movements those associated with tardive dyskinesia.
Dr. Glenberg pointed out further that other studies indicated that administration of lecithin as compared to choline chloride produced a greater increase in blood choline level that lasted longer. In addition choline chloride had a bitter taste and produced an unpleasant ‘fishy’ body odour and stomach pain. Lecithin appeared to be at least as effective as choline chloride with fewer adverse reactions and greater patient acceptance.
Dr. Glenberg planned to stop investigating the use of choline chloride and preferred a lecithin product with a higher concentration of PC. Dr. I.V. Jackson and his co-workers studied six patients with moderate to severe TD. No patient had any side effects to lecithin. Patient examination after treatment for 14 days indicated significant improvements in those people taking lecithin.
Choline Improves Learning
Dr. R.T. Bartus and colleagues in New York have studied the effects on behaviour of added choline to the diet in mice. In one case, mice were divided into two groups, one of a choline-enriched diet and the other on a choline-deficient diet. The results clearly showed a sharp loss of memory in older mice and outstanding behavioural differences between choline-enriched and choline-deficient mice. Those mice that were choline-enriched performed as well as very young mice, whereas the choline-deficient performed as badly as old mice . The results in mice are the same as in humans – choline deficiency plays an important part in mental disorders.
Later, Dr. Bartus repeated the experiment. He confirmed that learning and storing knowledge in memory was superior in choline-enriched mice and inferior in choline-deficient mice. Addition of choline to the diet definitely affected behaviour. Some undesirable behavioural changes that occurred with old age were shown to be reversed by taking choline. Dr. Bartus agreed with others that lecithin had the same effect as choline chloride.
Lecithin Vs Parkinsons Disease
Dr. J. P. Blass and his researchers at the Cornell-Burke Rehabilitation Center in New York conducted a study on the treatment of Parkinsons’s disease with lecithin. Like TD, this disease is also neurological and affects the body’s muscles causing mental deterioration.
Dr. Blass studied two groups of eight people, one on lecithin and the other a control. The group on lecithin improved in six out of the eight tests of awareness and judgment. The control group that did not take lecithin deteriorated slightly or was unchanged in seven out of eight tests. The lecithin group also improved in movement ability.
One patient in the lecithin group (and none in the control group) went so far as to demand that lecithin be continued even though the test ended, because he felt so much better. This type of request is very unusual and indicated the help that lecithin gives people who cannot find help anywhere else.
On a worldwide basis, lecithin continued to get attention because of the number of neurological disorders which come with old age and the search to delay the ageing process has a high priority with many of the world’s scientists.
Other studies around the world include Dr. J. Anath in Montreal who has concluded that clinical studies should be done to find help for patients with TD.13 An International Drug Therapy Newsletter published in 1980 described lecithin as a possible treatment for TD and called for more research to help understand and treat TD.14.
A good deal of investigation has been on-going in the Boston area. Dr. J.H. Growdon and R.J. Wurtman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that choline was useful in the treatment of TD. They have continued their investigations using pure lecithin (PC) to treat patients suffering from presenile and senile dementia, better known as mental deterioration beginning at middle and old age. Dr. Growdon, now at Tufts University and Dr. Corkin at MIT have begun a longterm study on the usefulness of lecithin.
Lecithin and Phosphatidyl Choline
Lecithin is the popular name for a naturally occurring mixture of compounds that are called phospholipids. Chemically lecithin contains choline, glycerol and fats. It has the property of emulsifying or breaking down fat deposits in the body. This property makes lecithin useful in treatment of atherosclerosis (which is characterized by fat deposits in the blood vessels) gallstones (fat deposits in the gall bladder) and liver problems caused by fat deposits. Phosphatidyl choline (PC) is the most important part of lecithin. PC products contain approximately 35 percent of PC which is two and a half to three times more concentrated than regular lecithin. Natural lecithin, we might add, also contains inositol which also has benefits for the body . This greater concentration of choline in PC is necessary to raise the blood level of choline effectively so that a patient can receive the benefits.
Because high potency natural PC is ingested as the active part of lecithin from soybean oil, there are no side effects as could be expected from a drug (such as choline chloride). Blood levels of choline are raised effectively and the increase has a longer lasting effect when lecithin (PC ) is the source instead of choline chloride. Ingestion of choline and not PC is undesirable also because it has a bitter taste, causes a ‘dead fish’ body odour and may produce gastrointestinal (stomach and intestine) irritation and pain.
It is the choline portion of PC that produces the beneficial action that we have been speaking of. Choline in blood normally comes either from the diet, mostly as lecithin or PC or from synthesis in the liver. The latter source does not provide enough choline for most bodies. It is perfectly natural then to supplement the diet with PC such as is currentlyl available in your health food store.
How Does Choline Work?
As discussed earlier, Drs. Growdon and Wurtman have done a considerable amount of research on the usefulness of choline. They have described the need for choline in the brain, as part of a highly technical process affecting the nervous system. In simple terms choline is vital to the production of acetycholine which is necessary to transmit nerve impulses. Even though our brains can produce choline from the breakdown of phosphatidyl choline normally found in our body cells, and from synthesis within our bodies, eventually the level of choline in our brains would be depleted if we did not have another source. This effect ie even more pronounced as we get older. More choline is needed which comes from the food we eat.
Supplementation of our diet with additional phosphatidyl choline aids in this process. Thus, ingestion of choline produces an increase in the blood level of choline which in turn causes an increase in the level of acetycholine in the brain – it is this activity that has been shown to produce improvement in neurological disorders. Acetycholine plays a vital role in memory storage and retrieval.
The search for treatment of mental disorders is difficult. Until recently there has been very little scientific data on the effect of ageing on the human memory, how to examina and measure memory in the aged, or the need for improved pure lecithin. It was for those resons that an International Study Group was established to meet periodically and review their findings. This group met in 1979 and 1981 in Zurich, Switzerland.
In conclusion, a considerable amount of date has been generated indicating thaty phosphatidyl choline as a dietary supplement is useful in the treatment of several medical problems, including some neurological disorders. Many investigators are not totally convinced of the benefits derived and as a result there is a good amount of active clinical tests being conducted.
However, the scientific information generated to date certainly has indicated the usefulness of phosphatidyl choline in helping patients who are otherwise hopeless. Clinical tests to date indicate clearly the usefulness of PC in helping patients with neurological disorders, including senility in middle and old age. To date there has been no report of PC producing any harmful side effects, so the potential benefitsd of PC are available and waiting for anyone at their health food store.