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The Straight Dope 

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I have heard that choline improves memory. This sounds intriguing, although I forget why. Before I embark on some costly vitamin regimen, I have some questions. Will choline help you remember things from long ago, or will it make today more memorable when you're older? Is choline good for trivia? Would you take it before going on Jeopardy, or if you want to remember a whole bunch of names at a party? Does it help you with things you want to remember, or will it dredge up irritating or useless memories, like how to use a slide rule? Will it reinforce Jungian collective species memory and/or past lives? Does Shirley MacLaine take it? What was I asking about? --Glenn Worthman, Palo Alto, California

PS: Oops. Forgot to send this.

Another comedian. Originally it was hoped choline would improve the memory of Alzheimer's victims, not normal people, a category we'll generously assume includes you. In the interest of thoroughness though, they also tried it on people who were merely a bit absentminded. (Actually, they dosed people with a variety of substances that raised choline levels in the blood, including lecithin, a common food additive.) Judging from reports in the scientific journals, it generally didn't work, although a few folks seemed to benefit. Who knows? You might be one of them, so try it if you want. (Cecil, prone to absentmindedness himself but reluctant to eat stuff that sounds like you'd evacuate the town if it spilled out of a tank car, tried the old trick of tying a string around his finger. Invariably this left him wondering an hour later: Why did I tie this string around my finger?)

Choline research started in a big way in 1976 when scientists reported that Alzheimer's victims had abnormally low levels of the enzyme choline acetyltransferase (CAT) in parts of their brains. CAT is a key ingredient of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is essential to memory. After studies showed that just eating choline, lecithin, or whatever wouldn't improve matters much, researchers interested in the "cholinergic hypothesis" turned to several alternative strategies, cooking up drugs "designed to protect acetylcholine from being broken down by enzymes, to cause the brain to produce more of it, or to render what there is more potent," according to a 1991 report in Scientific American. At least one such drug, tacrine (it inhibits acetylcholine breakdown), has been approved for treatment of Alzheimer's, but it generally produces only slight improvement in some patients and has side effects ranging from stomach upset to liver impairment. Research continues. I'll keep you posted, if I can remember to.

My girlfriend is Australian and, like every other Aussie, likes to eat Vegemite on her toast in the mornings. I understand this product has its origins in Australia and that every bloke and sheila grows up eating it. I personally find the stuff vile and my uncle (who is married to an Australian) says the stuff reminds him of squished cockroaches. What is the origin of this uniquely Australian yeast extract? --Richard Wood, Austin, Texas

One stretches the limits of the English language to describe Vegemite. One of Cecil's correspondents writes, "Years ago my casual experiments suggested that one in ten Americans likes it. The other nine had descriptions like, really rotten broccoli, rancid soy sauce, or burnt axle grease." That gives you the flavor of it, so to speak. My personal view is that the stuff ain't bad, considering it looks like something you'd find growing in a petri dish. Vegemite is a concentrated yeast extract made at a plant in Melbourne from the leftovers of a local brewery. Not a very promising beginning, but the English, who gave the world warm beer, have something similar called Marmite. Vegemite is salty enough to kill crabgrass, but its defenders say it's a rich source of vitamin B. The stuff became popular around World War II, no doubt because it gave the stay-at-homes a taste of conditions at the front. Hard though it is to believe, the stuff is made by a subsidiary of Kraft. No doubt it'll show up here soon. Resist.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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