The latter is the rationale for DMAE supplementation. Choline transport across the blood-brain barrier is limited, whereas—according to claims—DMAE passes more readily. Since DMAE can be converted to choline in the body, it might serve as an alternate form of choline in the brain, too. Therefore, DMAE could boost brain acetylcholine more efficiently than choline itself.
Unfortunately, this scenario is long on theory and short on facts. Animal experiments have demonstrated that DMAE—or “Deanol” (as it once was known)—does NOT directly increase brain acetylcholine…in fact, DMAE acts as an inhibitor of choline transport. Thus, the nature of DMAE’s effects on mood and behavior are still not completely understood.
And it does seem to have some effects. DMAE was once used as a prescription drug for the treatment of learning/behavior disorders in children. The drug, Deaner (made by Riker Pharmaceuticals) was withdrawn from the market in 1983, however, as more effective medications became available.
Beyond its use in children, DMAE has been a cure in search of a disease.
It also failed to improve age-associated slowing of cognitive function. As such, the case for DMAE as an anti-aging and therapeutic nutrient in humans is fairly weak.
Currently, DMAE is marketed as a dietary supplement and “smart drug.” A number of users report improved mood, focus and alertness after taking it. It may also facilitate lucid dreaming, although these observations are uncontrolled and largely anecdotal.
It also shows some promise as a “cosmeceutical,” as it has anti-inflammatory and firming effects when applied to skin (although its effects on skin texture may be mediated through cell damage…the jury’s still out on this one).
Side effects reported from DMAE use include insomnia, muscle tension and headaches. Given its history, short-term use appears to be safe, although some caveats apply…Because DMAE is also an industrial chemical, an extensive toxicological review was performed in 2002, under the auspices of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). The authors stated (p.6):
“DMAE supplementation is contraindicated during pregnancy, lactation, and for treatment of people with symptoms of schizophrenia and clonic-tonic seizure disorders.”
The pregnancy warnings are well-founded, as DMAE caused growth retardation/abnormalities (including neural tube defects) in developing mouse embryos. Until more is known, the NIEHS recommendation should be heeded.
As a supplement, DMAE is likely harmless in the context of a choline-sufficient diet, and the low amounts contained in many weight loss and bodybuilding products should be no cause for concern when taken by healthy people.
Nonetheless, there are gaps in the research that warrant taking a cautious approach. I agree with the reservations expressed by health/fitness writers David Tolson and Dr. Andrew Weil…the clinical evidence falls far short of the claims.