DMAE is known to increase activity of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, making it a potentially effective nootropic supplement. And many users online report positive effects on mental performance – particularly when it comes to concentration and focus. This raises the possibility of using DMAE to treat ADHD. But does it really work?
- DMAE is chemically similar to choline – a precursor of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine
- Users online report significant increases in concentration and focus when supplementing DMAE
- Studies of children with attention disorders report reduced symptoms when treated with DMAE compared to placebo
- Side effects are rare, but DMAE is not suitable for pregnant women
What is DMAE?
Dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE) is a naturally occurring chemical found in ‘brain foods’ such as sardines and anchovies. It’s sometimes called dimethylethanolamine (DMEA), or deanol, for short.
But it’s most popularly used as a nootropic supplement to improve mental performance. Specifically, DMAE is said to improve memory, concentration and focus.
DMAE and acetylcholine
The proposed mechanism of action for DMAE is increased activity of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
“In rat experiments, DMAE p-Glu increased the extracellular levels of choline and acetylcholine in the medial prefrontal cortex, as assessed by intracerebral microdialysis, improved performance in a test of spatial memory, and reduced scopolamine-induced memory deficit in passive avoidance behavior.”
Similar results have been observed in at least one other study1.
But where DMAE really seems to help is by improving concentration and focus.
Before we get into the clinical evidence, take a look at this user’s experience of DMAE from Reddit:
“My mind became incredibly disciplined. Everything I saw or thought about was a problem to be solved. I would instinctively work to solve detailed analytic problems. I had a simply huge capacity to concentrate. I’m talking hours of intense, focused effort on what was really a pretty boring (even then) circuit layout project that I was doing as a favor for a friend. Despite my lack of interest, I felt compelled to work to solve this problem and others.”
It’s not hard to find similar accounts online. This increased concentration and focus from DMAE raises the possibility of using it to treat attention deficit disorders such as ADHD – but does it really work?
DMAE for ADHD
Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) is a condition characterized by a difficulty controlling behaviour and paying attention. While it’s estimated that 2-5% of adults have the disorder, ADHD is a condition most commonly associated with childhood.
Children with ADHD tend to be easily distracted and have trouble focusing on one task for an extended period of time. This often has the effect of poor results in school – an environment that requires attention and focus.
Stimulants, such as Ritalin, are often prescribed to improve concentration and control ADHD. These drugs appear to work for around 80% of patients in the short term1, with both parents and teachers reporting an improvement in symptoms.
Not everyone is prepared to resort to prescription medication, though.
Parents may be concerned about side effects or feel the symptoms are not sufficient to warrant such extreme measures. Others may have gone down this route only to find the effects eventually wear off. Then there’s the adults who may simply be looking for something safe and natural to improve their concentration at work or while studying.
In these cases, natural nootropics such as DMAE present a viable alternative.
“Since childhood I’ve suffered from ADD […] After trying virtually every nootropic I could find, I stumbled upon DMAE. […] If I take it in the a.m I feel the effects throughout the day. The benefits include: Sharpness of mind, far better attention, improved reading speed/ comprehension, better social interactions, and less need for sleep. I feel like my brain is turned on like someone increased the volume. […] For whatever reason DMAE has been more effective and less side effect free compared to traditional stimulants and, unlike modafinil, seems to be rather side effect free minus light headaches the first few days.”
And there is also a significant body of evidence to suggest these effects are due to more than simply placebo.
In this study from 1975, for example, children with conditions that would today be classified as ADHD were randomly assigned either placebo, methylphenidate or DMAE in a double-blind test. The researchers observed that DMAE improved symptoms compared to placebo:
“Seventy-four children referred for problems with learning, including many with hyperactivity, were screened for neurological or psychiatric illness, then given [DMAE], methylphenidate, or placebo in a double-blind fashion for 3 months. […] Both drugs showed significant improvement on a number of tests; the pattern and degree of change differed slightly for the two. In this paradigm, [DMAE] thus appeared to improve performance in children with learning and behavior disorders.“
– Deanol and methylphenidate in minimal brain dysfunction, PMID: 1092513
Similar results were observed in this study from 1957.
In fact, not only did attention span increase and hyperactivity decrease, the researchers even noted increased IQ in some cases!
DMAE side effects
Generally speaking, DMAE is well tolerated with few side effects. If side effects do occur, these tend to go away quickly after stopping treatment.
Side effects reported to be linked to DMAE include:
- Muscle tension
A somewhat bizarre but potentially pleasant side effect is increased incidence of lucid dreams. This study found DMAE to cause greater frequency of lucid dreams – something that could have positive psychological effects.
Despite its safety, it is not recommended for pregnant women to supplement DMAE. At least in mice1, DMAE appears to induce neural tube defects in offspring when taken during early development. This is likely to be result of choline inhibition where DMAE is used in its place.
Summary: an effective nootropic
All in all, there is good evidence to support the use of DMAE for increased concentration.
Anecdotal reports online are mostly positive – some remarkably so. Users report being more focused and able to study for longer without being distracted.
But of course it’s always possible for effects like these to be put down to the placebo effect.
However, as we’ve seen, there are at least two placebo controlled studies of DMAE in children with ADHD and similar conditions. In these studies, researchers observed that children treated with DMAE showed reduction in symptoms. This makes it less likely the positive effects of DMAE are a result of the placebo effect.
And due to the low risk of side effects, the positive benefits of DMAE on concentration are likely to outweigh the negatives.