Acetylcholine is one of the more well-known neurotransmitters and is a member of the “big 5” neurotransmitters - acetylcholine, serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline - that perform several vital functions. Identified in cardiac tissue in the early twentieth century, acetylcholine was actually the first neurotransmitter to be discovered. Researchers and physicians now understand much about the actions of acetylcholine in everything from voluntary muscle movements to learning.
Broadly speaking, neurotransmitters are the chemicals that carry signals among nerve cells. Acetylcholine is present in both the central nervous system (e.g. the brain) as well as the peripheral nervous system that travels throughout your entire body. This neurotransmitter is produced in the tips of nerve cells, so there is no one central location for acetylcholine secretion.
It should be noted that acetylcholine is also integral to the autonomic nervous system, the set of involuntary functions that are continuously ongoing in your body. Specifically, acetylcholine works in both the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems which trigger the “fight or flight” and rest responses, respectively.
Acetylcholine is a major factor in several cognitive functions like learning and memory. It is also quite important to neuroplasticity - the brain’s ability to adapt to new experiences, new information, and new environments. Many researchers also believe that acetylcholine allows you to selectively remember important information while discarding useless, extraneous data. Needless to say, these abilities could prove useful to almost anyone in modern society - business people, parents, students, and many others.
For example, in a study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology in 2014, scientists found that acetylcholine had a profound effect on mice with the equivalent of human autism. After injecting the mice with a drug that prevents the breakdown of acetylcholine, the researchers observed that the subjects showed decreased repetitive behaviors, better socialization and more varied interests - all desirable traits.
Interestingly, another article appearing in the European Journal of Neuroscience concludes that acetylcholine also controls attention/task switching on a split-second basis. In other words, if you’re focused on information and need to rapidly switch to an action, acetylcholine is responsible for this ability. A simple example would be deciding to step on the brake when you see the traffic light turn red.
Additionally, research published in the journal Progress in Molecular Biology and Translational Science further makes the case that acetylcholine, along with dopamine, helps with another unique cognitive function - cost/benefit decisions, also known as risk/reward. This process allows us to evaluate whether a certain action, such as a financial investment or ordering another drink, is worth the potential benefit.
What the Thought Leaders Say
Tim Ferriss, biohacking guru and author of 4 Hour Workweek, mentions acetylcholine in an article on the importance of great sleep in The Huffington Post. Ferriss states that acetylcholine not only accelerates learning and allows for lucid dreaming but can also increase REM sleep - the most restful sleep stage.
How to Naturally Boost Your Acetylcholine
An increasingly-popular and effective method of naturally raising your acetylcholine levels involves nootropic supplements. Nootropic compounds are substances that boost your alertness, enhance your mood, and optimize your cognitive function. In the case of acetylcholine, there are two nootropic compounds you should be particularly aware of.
The first of these is huperzine-A. Noted by Ferriss in his Huffington Post article mentioned above, huperzine-A inhibits an enzyme that degrades acetylcholine, thus raising your acetylcholine levels. It is isolated from a natural herb and may also have neuroprotective benefits, slowing or preventing cognitive decline, particularly in the elderly.
The second nootropic for boosting your acetylcholine is L-carnitine and its sister molecule, acetyl-L-carnitine. These compounds interact with both acetylcholine and dopamine, and, like huperzine-A, provide a neuroprotective effect. Furthermore, both of these also increase alertness and allow the mitochondria - the power plants of your cells - to produce more energy.
Of course, no one wants to take dozens of supplements a day, and there are several other useful nootropic compounds available. A good solution is a nootropic stack. Stacks are convenient, prepackaged sets of nootropics that complement each other and provide you with the energy, alertness and cognitive enhancement to excel in life.