Perspective in practice| Volume 94, ISSUE 1, P71-77, January 1994

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Dietary amino acids and brain function


      Two groups of amino acids—the aromatic and the acidic amino acids—are reputed to influence brain function when their ingestion in food changes the levels of these amino acids in the brain. The aromatic amino acids (tryptophan, tyrosine, phenylalanine) are the biosynthetic precursors for the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Single meals, depending on their protein content, can rapidly influence uptake of aromatic amino acid into the brain and, as a result, directly modify their conversion to neurotransmitters. Such alterations in the production of transmitters can directly modify their release from neurons and, thus, influence brain function. The acidic amino acids glutamate and aspartate are themselves brain neurotransmitters. However, they do not have ready access to the brain from the circulation or the diet. As a result, the ingestion of proteins, which are naturally rich in aspartate and glutamate, has no effect on the level of acidic amino acid in the brain (or, thus, on brain function by this mechanism). Nevertheless, the food additives monosodium glutamate and aspartame (which contains aspartate) have been reputed to raise the level of acidic amino acid in the brain (when ingested in enormous amounts), to modify brain function, and even to cause neuronal damage. Despite such claims, a substantial body of published evidence clearly indicates that the brain is not affected by ingestion of aspartame and is affected by glutamate only when the amino acid is administered alone in extremely large doses. Therefore, when consumed in the diet neither compound presents a risk to normal brain function.
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