Know Your Neurotransmitters,

#177: Know Your Neurotransmitters: Acetylcholine

April 21, 2017

It’s high time we covered acetylcholine — the most plentiful neurotransmitter in the body.  And our Know Your Neurotransmitters series continues with the best guest possible to talk to us about acetylcholine:  Dr. Steven Zeisel, MD, PhD.

Dr. Zeisel, UNC Nutrition Research Institute Director, was involved in the first study of the effects of choline — the nutrient precursor to acetylcholine — on humans.

What’s the Big Deal About Choline?

In Dr. Zeisel’s first experiment with humans, he fed men and women a diet deficient in choline.  Most men and postmenopausal women became ill when deprived of choline.

Their bodies weren’t able to produce their own choline and they began to experience liver problems:  fatty liver accumulation and liver cell death.  These problems reversed within a few days of reintroducing choline to their diet.

For younger women, however, 55% did not experience any negative effects from choline deprivation.  The difference?  Estrogen.

There’s a gene in our livers, PEMT, that can produce choline but it’s only turned on by estrogen.  Neither men nor postmenopausal women produce enough choline to switch on the gene.  And those 45% of women who did get sick?  They have a gene “misspelling” that makes their PEMT gene unresponsive to estrogen.

Why We Need Choline

For adults, choline deficiency can have two serious consequences.  For most people, lack of choline means that your liver is unable to properly process fat, and you get fatty liver.  A fatty liver puts you at risk of prediabetes and liver cancer.  For 10% of adults, choline deficiency leads to muscle breakdown.

But for fetuses and infants, insufficient choline has even more devastating consequences.

Choline is absolutely essential in developing a normal brain.  The development of the hippocampus, the memory center of the brain, requires choline.  The development of the frontal cortex, responsible for high-level thinking, requires choline.

And lack of choline in the earliest stages of development impairs a child’s mental function for years to come.  A high intake of choline during pregnancy results in higher cognitive performance in children at 7 years old.

Choline & Acetylcholine

Choline is a precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.  Nerves use choline to make acetylcholine, which acts as a messenger between nerves — a huge variety of nerves.

Acetylcholine tells muscles to twitch and more, but it also tells your hippocampus to store a memory.  It plays an essential role in alertness, attention, learning, and memory.  It’s so essential to memory, in fact, that acetylcholine deficits are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Getting Enough Choline

Clearly, it’s important to get enough choline in your body.  Foods that are high in fat and cholesterol are also generally high in choline.  That means eggs and meat, particularly beef (418mg of choline per 100g) and chicken liver (290mg/100g), are the best dietary sources of choline.

Don’t despair vegans, as wheat germ (152mg/100g) is also a good source of choline.  You can also take a choline supplement, like CDP Choline.

As for how much choline you should aim for a day, women need 400mg, 450mg if pregnant.  Men should aim for 500mg of choline a day.

There can be too much of a good thing, however.  Don’t get more than 3g of choline per day.  That much choline will cause low blood pressure, and potentially increase your risk of heart disease.

PS:  Want more awesome, brain-boosting content?  We’ll send you the latest and greatest in neuro-news once a week!

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  1. Remy says:

    Do xenoestrogens have the same effect on the liver gene as endogenous estrogens? Great show, thanks!

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