DMAE is believed to be able to boost your mood, enhance your overall brain function, and particularly bolster your memory function. Some even claim that it can fight the effects of aging on your skin.
These are all incredible benefits, especially as they pertain to your cognitive function and brain health. If they are true, they would make DMAE an incredible ally in the pursuit of optimal brain function and mental wellbeing.
Advocates believe that they can combine to mitigate the symptoms of, and help to treat, a wide range of medical concerns, including but not limited to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dementia and Alzheimer’s, and depression.
However, the scientific consensus is often pretty weak surrounding its main claims. Many of the claims go unsubstantiated, as we shall see, making DMAE quite a mixed bag for the moment.
What is DMAE?
DMAE (or dimethylethanolamine, often called deanol) is an organic compound thought by many to act as a potent nootropic chemical. It is produced naturally in a small amount within the human body, and can be found in exogenous, dietary sources like fatty fish.
There is actually very little data on DMAE content in common fish types. However, most experts agree that sardines, salmon, and anchovies are rich sources that should deliver plenty into your diet.
It is thought that DMAE’s main cognitive benefits come from its supposed ability to boost acetylcholine production. Acetylcholine is a key neurotransmitter, vital for enabling nerve cells, including neurons, to communicate with one another. It is responsible for many of the brain’s functions and plays a role in enabling some our most basic cognitive processes.
DMAE is also thought to possibly diminish beta-amyloid build up, a substance in the brain excessive levels of which have been tied to memory loss and cognitive decline related to the aging process.
This two pronged approach – boosting acetylcholine levels whilst diminishing beta-amyloid levels – should make DMAE a very powerful aid to cognitive health, function, and performance.
In fact, DMAE began its public life as a prescription drug, labelled Deanol. It was aimed at children who exhibited learning and behavioral problems in a bid to bolster their cognitive health. However, it hasn’t been available in this way for forty years – it hasn’t been sold as a prescription drug since 1983.
Nowadays, it is mostly available as a dietary supplement. You can buy it from plenty of different outlets in both powdered and capsule form for its nootropic benefits. Dosing can be a bit tricky, however – there is little scientific consensus and so instructions vary brand to brand, supplement to supplement.
You can also buy DMAE serum for topical use. That is, for use on the skin. As above, it is thought to combat signs of aging, including keeping you free from wrinkles. It’s often an ingredient in common cosmetics and skin creams as a result.
The benefits of DMAE supplementation
It is hard to talk in concrete terms about the benefits you can gain from DMAE. If the theories are true, they are quite profound – see below. However, there is a critical dearth of data surrounding its use. Most of the theory rests on small, older studies, alongside a fair amount of anecdotal data. This undermines its potential efficacy a great deal.
However, if you are sold on DMAE and its legitimacy, there are indeed some fantastic potential benefits to be gained from taking it.
Some of the better studied benefits pertain to its topical use and the benefits it may deliver to the skin. For instance, a high-quality, randomized clinical study published in the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology showed that a solution containing 3% DMAE worked effectively for reducing fine lines on the face, specifically around the eyes and forehead, after just four months. The same study reported improvements to lip fullness and shape (however such things might be measured…)
Further work on animals has shown that DMAE may contain hydrating properties for the skin.
Then there are the nootropic benefits, whose effects rely on much shakier data. For example, DMAE is thought to support working memory. However, the evidence is anecdotal and really quite limited. Advocates propose that it may help to mitigate memory loss from dementia and Alzheimer’s, but there is no clinical data supporting this claim.
DMAE may also show promise for treating the symptoms of ADHD. It is thought to reduce hyperactivity. However, the data are startlingly out of date. This claim relies on studies performed on children between the 1950s and 1970s. These studies found evidence that DMAE could calm children, enable them to focus better, and overall reduce severity of hyperactivity. However, no modern data support these claims.
DMAE is also thought to aid improved mood, boosting it whilst warding off the effects of anxiety and depression. There is some evidence for this, though it is also outdated and is very selective.
Most of the evidence comes from a study conducted in 1977 that focused on those experiencing age-related cognitive decline. DMAE was found to mitigate symptoms of depression whilst reducing anxiety and irritability. At the same time, they found that it boosted motivation.
Modern data are needed on a broader participant pool, however.
Finally, oddly, there is anecdotal evidence suggesting that DMAE may play a role in improving athletic performance. To do so, it is needed in conjunction with several other vitamins and supplements. However, there is no clinical data whatsoever supporting this theory.
Side effects and risks of DMAE
These lackluster findings are coupled with some pretty alarming side effects and risks, making the risk to reward ratio uncomfortably skewed.
To begin with, current medical advice is that those suffering with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or epilepsy should not take DMAE. It may worsen symptoms. It has also been linked with spina bifida, a defect in babies, when taken during pregnancy. If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, then, you should not take DMAE. You should also avoid it if you are breastfeeding or planning to breastfeed.
High doses of DMAE have been linked to several side effects. This includes oral and topical use, and inhalation. According to the National Institute of Health, it can lead to severe skin irritation, including redness and inflammation, muscle twitching, spasms, and convulsions, sleep disruption, including insomnia, respiratory concerns, such as coughing, sneezing, and wheezing, and eye irritation.
There are also numerous drugs with which DMAE can potentially interact dangerously. These include cholinesterase inhibitors (which you’ll often see in Alzheimer’s and dementia treatment plans, and include the likes of Aricept, Cognex, and Reminyl), anticholinergic medications (usually involved in treatment for Parkinson’s disease, COPD, and overactive bladder), and anticoagulants.
You should always talk to a doctor before beginning a new supplement regime, especially where there are existing medical conditions and complications at play.
My final take
There is very little about DMAE that seems to be worth it. It doesn’t seem like a good thing to be taking. When considering any supplement, you need to look at the risk to reward ratio, as mentioned above. You should aim for the greatest reward for the least risk. In general, you want to keep the risk to as close to zero as is practical.
This is not the case with DMAE. The risk is too high. There are some troubling side effects that healthy adults may experience. There are some outright dangerous ones when there are additional medical complications to take into account.
Considering common medications for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and dementia can interact badly with DMAE, and considering that those suffering from these diseases are amongst those allegedly standing to benefit the most, this makes it a bit of a write off from a safety point of view.
Then there is the reward, or potential reward. The benefits would have to be solid and profound to make up for those risks. They are not. They are barely strong enough to make up for the price of purchasing DMAE supplements, and would be even in a world with zero risk.
Most of the claims are fallacious. They are based on outdated data at best. At worst, they are based on nothing more than anecdote. This isn’t good enough in the supplement world. If it works anecdotally, it should be clinically tested. If it is shown to work clinically, great. If not, it simply remains an anecdotal cure – which is to say, it is no cure at all.
Then there is the competition. DMAE is far from the only nootropic ingredient out there. There are plenty. Many have been rigorously tested, found to work incredibly well, and come with very few, very minor side effects, if any at all.
As above, there is very little about DMAE that seems to be worth it.