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MCT's and Cognition

What are Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT’s)? 

Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT’s) are saturated fats that get metabolized by the liver quickly upon consumption. This fast breakdown of MCT’s is what separates them from short chain triglycerides (SCT) and long chain triglycerides (LCT). MCT’s have been shown to aid in weight loss, demonstrate anti-microbial properties, increase ketone production and improve cognition (1-4)! Of the many benefits, one aspect that has gained a lot of interest from different communities, are MCT’s ability to improve cognition. A healthy sustainable means of improving cognition could have vast implications for people with mild cognitive impairment, neurological disorders and high performers looking to maximize productivity!

How can MCT’s improve cognition?

For starters it is important to have a brief understanding of the different types of MCT’s and their metabolism. As mentioned in previous articles, there are four different types of MCT’s each presenting a different carbon length (i.e. C6, C8, C10 and C12). The difference in carbon length alters the metabolism rate resulting in different physiological effects. While all MCT’s are broken down in the liver and possess the ability to increase ketone production, research has demonstrated that C8 may be the most effective MCT for increasing ketone production (5). Whereas, C12 may be the most effective for providing anti-microbial properties (6).

Nevertheless, it appears that MCT’s ability to improve cognition is attributed to the in-increase ketone production. Ketone bodies possess the ability to cross the blood brain barrier and can be utilized as a secondary fuel source by the brain. This becomes critical for special populations as one of the defining characteristics of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and neurological disorders is impaired glucose metabolism (7). Thus, the brains inability to utilize glucose as a fuel source leads to impaired cognition, memory, and physical performance. This makes sense, if you’re not providing the system with enough fuel, whether it’s the brain or your car it’s not going to function properly. However, with a car you can simply always add gas but with the brain simply adding more glucose is not always ideal as this can come with other detrimental health effects. Thus, an efficient secondary fuel source is warranted.

What does the research show?

Rebello et al, (2015) investigated the effects of 56 grams of MCT’s per day for 24 weeks on six patients with MCI (Mild Cognitive Impairment). The results demonstrated elevated ketone production and improvements in memory compared to control (8). Additionally, Page et al, (2009) provided 11 type 1 diabetics with MCT’s or placebo and had them undergo a battery of cognitive tasks. These results demonstrated that MCT’s reversed impairments in cognitive performance seen in the hypoglycemic conditions (9). Collectively, these studies demonstrate both the acute (short term) and chronic (long term) effects that MCT’s can have on cognition. Lastly, researchers wanted to see if these effects could be extrapolated to other animal models. Pan et al, (2010) provided aging dogs with a diet high in MCT’s for 8 months. The results demonstrated that those receiving MCT’s noted significant improvements in most cognitive tasks. Interestingly, the MCT group performed better the more difficult the task got (10)!

Regarding a specific mechanism, it appears that MCT’s are extremely effective for increasing ketone body production. These ketone bodies are then transported across the blood brain barrier and used for oxidative metabolism by neuronal mitochondria. This is evident from improvements in cognitive tasks under the presence of ketones, as well as animal models which have demonstrated improved synaptic transmission (8-10).

MCT’s appear to be the most effective for aging or diseased populations as they are providing energy to an energy starved brain. However, this is not to say that MCT’s may not improve cognition for healthy individuals as well. If anything, MCT’s support ketone production which comes with a host of its own benefits. While the ketogenic diet may be the most effective means of increasing ketone production, supplementing with MCT’s can either strengthen a ketogenic diet or provide it’s benefits in the presence of glucose, making them even more widely applicable. It is important to mention however, when taken in the supplemental form such as oil, MCT’s may cause some gastric distress. Thus, if you’re looking to add MCT’s into your diet you may want to gradually introduce them or take them in a powdered form!

Wrapping it up!

MCT’s are fascinating saturated fats with a lot of benefits to recognize. Their ability to increase ketone production and provide the brain with an efficient secondary fuel source appears to be an effective way to improve cognition. If you know anyone with MCI or Alzheimer’s disease, consider informing them on some of this research. Additionally, while research is lacking on healthy individuals the mechanisms should still be the same and increasing ketone production may improve cognition across all populations!

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