Can Magnesium L-Threonate (MagTein) Really Make you Smarter?

What is Magnesium Threonate and What is it Supposed to do?

Magnesium threonate belongs to a class of supplements known as nootropics or smart drugs. If the whole health supplements market abounds in half-truths, unsubstantiated claims and huge leaps of logic, then nootropics are in a league of their own. The claims about strange botanical extracts, or fungus pastes, which will either ‘excite your synaptic receptors’ or have an ‘inhibitory, calming effect’ (both appear to be equally desirable), are not just unsubstantiated, most of the time they don’t make any kind of sense.

The evidence for Magnesium threonate is very different. It is actually based on proper neuroscience, by a team in MIT, and published in a peer review journal. And not just any journal, but in the very prestigious Neuron!

So what is magnesium threonate? And could it really be the amazing pill which will make you smarter, improve your memory, and stop your brain deteriorating with age?
Magnesium Threonate Facts at a Glance

Magnesium threonate (MgT) consists of an mg2+ ion chelated to threonine, a vitamin C metabolite.
It is claimed that the chelation increases its bioavailability, and that it can increase brain Mg2+ levels, unlike other supplements.
Studies in rats showed that elevated Mg2+ modify signalling through the NMDA receptor in the hippocampus and increase the numbers of synaptic connections.
Magnesium threonate supplementation improved the performance in working and normal spacial memory of young and aged rats.
All the available data on the efficacy of MgT is in rats. A human trial with a very small number of people was started in 2012, but the results haven’t been published yet.

Magnesium is an Essential Mineral, and it Does Act in the Brain

Magnesium L-threonate is simply a form of magnesium ions chelated to a fairly simple organic molecule, threonine, a metabolite of vitamin C. It is also marketed under the name MagTeinTM (for which a patent is pending). The claims about the ability of the substance to make you smarter come from two angles.

That elevating magnesium brain levels improves cognitive function
That chelating Mg2+ to threonine can in fact increase magnesium brain levels, in a way that other supplements can’t.

The fact that Magnesium is an essential mineral is not in dispute. It takes part in hundreds of enzymatic reactions and is important for the functioning of pretty much every system in the body including the central nervous system (see more about this below).

The big question is: how many people are actually deficient in magnesium? And if you don’t have a deficiency, will pumping more of the stuff into your brain actually bring any benefits?
Can magnesium threonate really improve brain function?
Can magnesium threonate really improve brain function? | Source
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Do we Really Need More Magnesium?

This is one of the Big Lies I see in supplement marketing copy everywhere. They write about all the important functions of a nutrient. Then they immediately jump to the conclusion that more is better. No matter how important a chemical is, the body needs a certain amount of it, and then giving it more is useless at best, and could be actually harmful.

It is actually quite complicated to detect a magnesium deficiency. A lot of the mineral is stored in bones, and blood levels fluctuate in any one person and are not a reliable indicator of overall levels.

Well the data from the MIT seems to suggest that getting more magnesium into the brains of normal rats (and yes it is all animal studies) does make them smarter. The assumption is that rats fed a normal lab rat diet are already getting the magnesium that rats need.

So what is the evidence for MagTein, and are there any problems with? But before we get into that, here’s a little primer on synapses, neurotransmitters, and how learning in the brain is thought to happen:
A diagram illustrating synaptic transmission.
A diagram illustrating synaptic transmission. | Source
Synapses, Neurotransmitters, and Synaptic Plasticity

Synapses are the gaps between nerve endings. The axon of one nerve cell does not actually touch the dendrites of another, there is a little gap between them. Electrical impulses cannot jump across the synapse, so for the nerve impulse to continue on its transmission, it has to be converted into a chemical signal, a neurotransmitter.

There are many different neurotransmitters, some are simple amino acids like glycine or glutamate. Acetylcholine and GABA are also examples of neurotransmitters. They are found in vesicles in the presynaptic neurone. When the neurone is excited, they are released into the synapse, and on the other side they bind to receptors. This causes either an electrical impulse in the post-synaptic neurone (excitation) or a block of further transmission (inhibition) depending on the neurotransmitter and the receptor.

But synapses are far more than just obstacles in the smooth transmission of nerves. They are at the centre of encoding memories and learning. Their ability to transmit a nerve signal can be varied, for example by increasing the number of neurotransmitter vesicles, or the number of receptors. This is known as synaptic plasticity, and is fundamental to at least some forms of memory.