Your Memory: Acetylcholine

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“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a  single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a  deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep  mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts  we wish to dominate our lives.” — Henry David Thoreau


Your memory system is complex. It consists of three interrelated systems - a very fast and brief sensory storage memory system that lasts less than 1 second, a limited capacity working or short-term  memory that last from a few seconds to a few minutes (depending on whether you rehearse the  content, e.g. repeating a person’s name and phone number in your head) and your long-term memory. Long term memory systems include explicit memory systems such as your semantic memory (knowledge, facts, languages etc.), your autobiographical memory (personal experiences), and your implicit memory systems such as your procedural memory (motor skills etc.) and emotional memory (your feelings for situations, love/hate etc.). Long-term memory may have a practically unlimited capacity. Memories that aren’t useful to you will fade and decay in time and you will forget them. With age we can become more forgetful, though often it is the pathway to retrieving the  memory that is disrupted rather than that memory is actually erased. 


Long-term memories are stored in various parts of your brain as neural memory maps, which identify the neurons involved in a particular memory and enable your brain to recreate and reconstruct  memories when you remember things. For procedural memory these maps are created and inventoried in the Basal Ganglia and Cerebellum, and other kinds of memories, including knowledge and facts, involve the Hippocampus and the Temporal lobe.


Memories are encoded through a process called long-term potentiation. Each and every new  thought and sensory experience causes the neuronal firing across some of your synapses to either strengthen or weaken. The pattern of firing across a network of synapses represents an initial memory of your experience, perhaps like footprints in sand, but that memory will soon decay and  disappear unless it is made more permanent by long-term potentiation.


The key to creating long term memories is repetition. As neurons fire together the bonds between  them strengthen. The bonded neurons then begin to recruit neighboring neurons to join the effort. Each time the activity or experience is repeated, the bonds become a little stronger and more neurons get involved, so that eventually an entire network develops representing the memory of the  repeated skill, information, procedure or experience. Motivation and intense emotion can cause memories to become encoded more quickly. 


Your brain operates in one of three states - waking, non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, and  REM sleep. In non-REM sleep there are alternating periods of neural activity and inactivity in  both the neocortex and the hippocampus, a brain region involved in long-term memory. During  (REM) sleep, which is when we are in deep sleep and when we dream, various brain regions may  be rehearsing memory patterns to either reinforce new memories or keep fading memories alive. REM sleep is associated with a slight increase in brain temperature, and decreasing firing rates in  the hippocampus (thought to be decreased inhibition allowing for fanciful dreams). Consistently getting an adequate amount of high quality sleep is essential to learning new skills and information and to having a strong memory. 


The main neurotransmitter within your Hippocampus, where your long-term neural memory  maps are stored, is Acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is one of the most important neurotransmitter and  serves a number of important functions in the brain and body: 


  • Acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter at the neuromuscular junction (where your motor neurons connect to your muscles) and allows your brain to talk to your skeletal (voluntary) muscles  causing your muscles to contract; 
  • Acetylcholine modulates transmissions through the hippocampus, which plays a critical role in  learning and memory; 
  • Acetylcholine is the main neurotransmitters used by the parasympathetic nervous system,  which puts the body into a state of rest and regeneration (Acetylcholine also plays a more minor  role in the sympathetic nervous system, which arouses the body for action); • Acetylcholine promotes synaptogenesis, the development of synapses in the brain, which enables your brain to rewire itself and record memories; 
  • Acetylcholine has been linked to the brain’s motivation and reward, sleep and arousal, cognitive  processes and stimulus processing functions; and 
  • Acetylcholine is a building block of myelin (we’ll discuss myelin later). 


According to research recently published in the scientific journal Advances in Psychology and Neuroscience, an estimated 86% of Americans have suboptimal levels of Acetylcholine in their brain. Stress, poor diet, neurotoxins (including pollution), genetic predisposition, drugs (prescription and  recreational), alcohol and caffeine usage are cited as the major contributing factors. Therefore, taking steps to boost your Acetylcholine levels is essential to the proper functioning of your memory  and your ability to learn. 


Acetylcholine is synthesized in certain cholinergic neurons. Newly synthesized Acetylcholine is more  readily released upon neural stimulation than stored Acetylcholine, thus increasing the rate of Acetylcholine synthesis, instead of inhibiting the breakdown of existing Acetylcholine, is more beneficial. Increasing the rate of Acetylcholine synthesis can be achieved through diet and/or supplementation.


To raise Acetylcholine levels in the brain, you need to ingest a form of choline that is not only bio available, but also is able to efficiently cross the blood-brain barrier. There are two forms of choline  that perform this function well, Alpha GPC and CDP Choline (Citicoline). The more common and  cheaper sources of choline, typically Choline Bitartrate and Phosphatidylcholine, cannot cross the  blood-brain barrier and therefore do nothing to boost levels of Acetylcholine in the brain. Alpha  GPC and CDP Choline (Citicoline) are both excellent sources of choline. For nootropic purposes  CDP Choline (Citicoline) is superior, because it also metabolizes into Uridine, which repairs your  Dopamine receptors, increases the number of Dopamine receptors and promotes neuroplasticity.  CDP Choline (Citicoline) is twice as potent as Alpha GPC, meaning that, for example, 250mg of  CDP Choline (Citicoline) is equivalent to 500mg of Alpha GPC. 


The best food sources of choline are beef liver, salmon, egg yolks, raw dairy, chickpeas, garbanzo beans, lima beans, navy beans, lentils, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy, brussel sprouts and broccoli.


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