A recent study of older adults made connections between higher blood levels of a source of the dietary nutrient choline and improved cognitive flexibility, or ability to regulate attention to manage different tasks. The study also discovered a structure within the front of the brain that seems to play a role in this link.
Phosphatidylcholine, a key component of cell membranes, originates from the diet and presents itself in the blood, according to Marta Zamroziewicz, a graduate student from the University of Illinois. She led the study with Aron Barbey, professor of psychology and affiliate of the Beckman Institute, and the Institute for Genomic Biology. According to the researchers, red meat, egg yolks, and soybeans are rich in phosphatidylcholine, which can be synthesized in the body.
According to Zamroziewicz, “Accumulating evidence suggests that declining phosphatidylcholine levels are a robust marker of age-related neurodegeneration and cognitive deterioration. No studies have determined how phosphatidylcholine may prevent such decline, however.”
Reported in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience journal, the new study measured blood levels of phosphatidylcholine and examined brain structure in 72 healthy adults ages 65-75. Using magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers gauged the thickness of gray matter in the front region of the brain. They conducted statistical analyses to understand the connection between phosphatidylcholine levels, brain structure and performance on cognitive tests.
“We hypothesized that higher blood plasma levels of phosphatidylcholine would be associated with better performance on tests of cognitive flexibility, and we found that higher blood levels of phosphatidylcholine are linked to better cognitive flexibility,” said Zamroziewicz.
According to Barbey, the findings suggest that certain nutrients may slow or prevent age-related cognitive declines by influencing specific structures in the brain. “We don’t yet know all the mechanisms involved. It may be that phosphatidylcholine protects the brain from the effects of aging by supporting the structure of brain membranes, reducing inflammation or contributing to the production of neurotransmitters that support cognition.”