In a study from Australia, people who took creatine for six weeks scored better on tests measuring intelligence and memory than those who did not take it. The authors say the dietary supplement could help those who need a short-term boost in mental function, such as students studying for an exam. But a creatine researcher contacted by WebMD says there is virtually no evidence to back up that claim.
"It is a huge leap to say, based on this study, that taking creatine will help people perform better on tests," says Stephen W. Scheff, PhD. "That is very premature."
Creatine is an amino acid produced naturally in the kidneys, liver, and pancreas. It is mostly stored in the muscles, where it becomes a source of energy and muscle growth. As a nutritional supplement, creatine has been shown to enhance athletic performance, and in a 2000 study, Scheff found that it protected against traumatic brain injuries in people who were already using it prior to being injured.
In this study, researcher Caroline Rae, PhD, and colleagues from the University of Sydney examined the impact of creatine supplementation on mental function. Forty-five vegetarian young adults received either 5 grams of creatine or a placebo powder for six weeks, followed by six weeks of no supplementation. The groups were then switched, and the placebo group received creatine for six weeks and vice versa. Standardized intelligence and memory tests were given at key points throughout the study.
Vegetarians were chosen because they tend to have lower overall creatine levels. The amino acid is produced naturally in the body and can come from eating meat, but a person would have to eat approximately four and a half pounds of meat a day to produce as much creatine as the study participants took.
The researchers found that creatine supplementation gave a "significant, measurable boost to brain power." In a memory test that asked participants to recall a string of numbers, people taking creatine recalled an average of 8.5 numbers vs. seven for people not taking the supplement. The findings are reported in the Oct. 22, 2003, issue of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences.
Creatine's Safety Unknown
Rae and colleagues warn that the health consequences of long-term creatine supplementation are not known. Classified as a nutritional supplement, it is not regulated by the FDA. Although short-term health effects appear minimal for most users, there is some evidence that taking creatine may be harmful for diabetic people and others with kidney problems.
The authors conclude that "creatine supplementation may be of use to those requiring boosted mental performance in the short term," and they cite University students as potential candidates for creatine loading.
"If you take it a couple of weeks before an exam, it might aid your memory while you are studying and then aid your memory recall while you are actually taking the exam," Rae tells WebMD. "This is really the first supplement that actually boosts cognitive performance with very few deleterious side effects."
Scheff says the brain-boosting potential of creatine may be worth further study but it has not been proved by the Australian study.
"There are lots of ways to test this, but it is really just a theory at this point," he tells WebMD. "Someone who wants to do well on an exam would be better off studying for 20 minutes a day, including Saturdays and Sundays."