General Articles


Fish is no brain food—but now in a common acid science sees new hope for the mentally deficient

GEORGE H. WALTZ, JR. May 15 1948
General Articles


Fish is no brain food—but now in a common acid science sees new hope for the mentally deficient

GEORGE H. WALTZ, JR. May 15 1948


Fish is no brain food—but now in a common acid science sees new hope for the mentally deficient


WORKING WITH an easily obtainable and easily administered drug, doctors are finding that they can increase—at least temporarily—the intelligence of the mentally retarded!

Let’s look at the interesting story of John G. It’s an actual medical-case history—one of many that run along similar lines.

At birth, John G. appeared to be a normal child. He made the usual day-to-day physical and mental progress expected of a healthy infant. Shortly after he was one year old, he uttered his first distinguishable “mamma.” A few months later he was able to stand alone.

But, just after his third birthday, he was stricken with influenza and ran a high fever for several weeks. His mental development slowed almost to a standstill. He practically reverted to babyhood. He spoke little and no longer would even feed himself. Although he matured physically, he remained a youngster mentally.

Frequent examinations over the years that followed showed small improvement, there was little gain in intelligence. At the age of 26 John G. had the mental age of a child seven and a half!

It was then that his case came to the attention of a group of medical researchers who had been experimenting with a chemical called glutamic acid. For some time, these doctors very cautiously had been testing the effects of the substance on the brain power of animals and humans.

After a thorough investigation of the case, they began giving John G. daily doses of glutamic acid. During the first month, his mental age, according to accepted intelligence tests, rose from the original seven and one half years to nine years. After another month and a half of glutamic-acid treatment,

it had risen to nine years and eight months. In just two and a half months, John G’s mental age had increased more than two years.

The basis for this interesting experiment on John G., and similar clinical trials on other parallel cases at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University’s Neurological Institute, goes back some years to a progression of interrelated tests. It. all really started in 1936 when Dr. H. Weil-Malherbe, a biochemist., discovered that glutamic acid—one of the many amino acids formed when proteins taken into the body are broken down by the enzymes or digestive ferments —was closely related to the normal functioning of our brain. In his laboratory, he found that glutamic acid was the only one of the amino acids which was metabolized by slices of brain tissue. The acid is obtained in powder form, from wheat gluten and other common sources.

This fact set another biochemist, Dr. Heinrich Waelsch, to work on experiments along a slightly different line. Perhaps, reasoned Dr. Waelsch, if glutamic acid aided the functioning of the brain, it might well be of some good use in the medical treatment of certain types of epilepsy. After

repeated tests, in which be administered glutamic acid to patients suffering from the “petit-mal” type of epilepsy, he found that it not only materially decreased their convulsive seizures but also improved their mental and physical alertness. This glutamic acid treatment for “petit-mal” epilepsy is st ill being tested, and on an increasingly wider scale.

When a formal report of Dr. Waelsch’s findings appeared in the scientific press in August, of 1943, t he chain reaction t hat, is modern research really got under way. His experiments, in turn, started Drs. F. T. Zimmerman and Sherman Ross to wondering what, effect glutamic acid would have on the mental and physical alertness of a normal brain and body. To find out, they turned to the old laboratory stand-by—they decided to see what effect, if any, daily doses of glutamic acid would have on the mentalities of normal, healthy white rats.

In order to obtain a means of accurately gauging the mentality of a rat they had to contrive some sort of comparable yardstick. For a measuring device, they constructed an intricate maze not unlike the ones we find in the “crazy house” on the midway of most amusement parks. It was a complicated network of paths and corridors that the rat had to learn to navigate if he was to reach his goal in the form of tempting foods. Then they selected two groups of normal, healthy rats. One group they used as the control group, feeding them a basic healthful diet. The other was the experimental group to which they fed the same diet but. fortified it with glutamic acid.

One by one, the rats in each group were then let loose in the maze. Just about, any self-respecting rat can figure out a maze—eventually—but it took each of the normal rats a dozen tries to learn the secret of reaching the food while the average glutamic-acid-fed rat solved the riddle in less than four attempts. What’s Continued on page 33

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more, after both had learned the way, the rat whose diet was fortified with glutamic acid made fewer errors and streaked through the maze in less than half the time it took an untreated rat!

Subsequently two other pioneers— Kathryn Albert and C. J. Wardendecided to put some rats through an even stiffer mental going-over. Instead of a maze, they devised an ingenious type of problem box—a circular cage whose floor consisted of a series of hinged plates that had to be stepped on in a definite sequence before a small trap door would open to give the animal his reward of food.

The maximum number of floor plates that a rat was able to learn to step on in the proper order was taken as his maximum intelligence score. It was logical to suppose that a rat who could learn to step on four plates to get his reward was more intelligent than one who could master only two or three.

As Albert and Warden had suspected, the control animals—the rats that received no glutamic acid—never were able to master much beyond a threeplate combination. Rats receiving glutamic acid, on the other hand, had little trouble learning the trick of negotiating a four or even a five-plate sequence.

Ceiling on Results

These two sets of experiments showed pretty conclusively that in some way, somehow, glutamic acid had the ability t o increase an animal’s power to learn— it sharpened its wits, boosted its intelligence. At that point, the main questions were: Would glutamic acid have the same effect on humans that it had on animals? Could a human, under a doctor’s care, boost his IQ (intelligence quotient) by taking glutamic acid? If so, was there a point in such treatment at which the glutamic acid no longer had any boosting effect? Would any gain in intelligence obtained by the use of glutamic-acid medication be maintained after the treatment was stopped, or would the patient slide back to his old level?

At the moment these researchers, together with Dr. Heinrich Waelsch who now is working under a $39,000 research grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and the New York Foundation, have the answers to some of those questions and partial answers to others. They are proceeding carefully and

cautiously. They are making no fancy claims nor broad promises. They are politely reticent about anything but the established facts.

So far, in a variety of tests on several hundred backward, mentally retarded children, the results have been promising. Glutamic acid— as long as it is administered—can raise a human’s intelligence. However, there appears to be a ceiling on the possible increase in intelligence and this maximum possible gain in intelligence appears to vary with the individual. Furthermore, if the treatment is stopped, the patient returns to his original intelligence level.

These points are brought out rather graphically in the case of Fred K. When Dr. Waelsch first examined the boy at the New York State Psychiatric Institute he wassix yearsold, of borderline intelligence and quite babyish in appearance. He was shy and liked to play alone. He attended school, but did not do well. He was overactive, stubborn, hard for his parents and teachers to control, and found it difficult to concentrate. An intelligence test showed his mental age to be that of a four-year-old - an IQ of 71.

To be absolutely sure that his young patient would not in any way react to the purely psychological effect of medical treatment. Dr. Waelsch did not immediately begin administering glutamic acid. Instead, he fed the youngster tablets that looked like the real pills but weren’t. Doctors call such pills “placebos” or “placebo tablets.” They resemble the real drug, but contain nothing stronger than sugar of milk or bicarbonate of soda or some other harmless substance.

Fred K. received these imitation pills for a period of two months. He was then tested again and his intelligence score showed no change. He was neither brighter nor dumber. At that point, Dr. Waelsch substituted glutamic-acid pills for the fake pills. Because both looked exactly alike, the young patient never knew when the switch was made.

During the first two months on glutamic-acid medication, the child’s IQ rose four points to 75. During the second two months, it rose another four points to 79. At the end of another month it had risen to 84. In five months he had climbed from a mental age of four to a mental age of almost six and a half . . . roughly a gain of two and a half years in less than six months!

To find out if this gain would be held, Dr. Waelsch switched back again to the fake pills. In two months, Fred K’s IQ dropped back 13 points. What he had gained in intelligence in five

months with glutamic acid he had lost in two months without it.

Put back on the glutamic-acid treatment. however, his intelligence zoomed again almost immediately. In the short space of six weeks it had climbed hack up to 75.

Probably one of the most dramatic of Dr. Waelsch’s experimental cases was that of John P. At the physical age of l()p2, John had the mental age of a child of three. During the preceding five years, his intelligence had increased only as much as a normal child’s would in about eight months.

Again, at first, Dr. Waelsch prescribed the fake pills to eliminate any error. And again, after a month of the placebos, John was tested and his intelligence showed no change. Then, as in the other cases, the switch to the real glutamic-acid pills was made. In two months this IQ showed a gain of five points—the equivalent of an increase in mental age of seven months. With the added mental boost provided by glutamic acid he had gained in intelligence in two short months what previously had taken him five years.

Eight-point Rise

There was still another boy whose progress always had been slow. At times his brain functioned so falteringly that he couldn’t even remember his way home from school. When researchers began giving him glutamic acid, he almost immediately became more alert, he fumbled less and his ability to do things and remember things improved. For the first time in a long time he received a promotion at school.

Large-scale group tests also have been made along similar lines. In one such experiment with 70 mentally deficient children of varying ages, glutamic acid pills raised the over-all IQ score of the group eight points. The children, as a group, gained in six months what normally would have taken them a year. But, as in the other tests, the gain was maintained only so long as glutamic acid was added to their diet.

Many questions still remain to be answered. Glutamic acid is a relatively new medical tool. These tests on humans must be repeated again and again and they must be extended over longer periods. It may even be that if the duration of the treatment is prolonged, the gain obtained will in some measure be retained. No one knows. There hasn’t been enough time.

In any case, it will be some years before glutamic-acid therapy will be generally available, even to the mentally deficient. There is still much to

be learned—and tried experimentally under carefully controlled conditions. And, as for the day when you’ll be able to walk into your neighborhood drugstore and buy a “brain pill” to help you over the hurdlesdon’t wait for it. The use of glutamic acid calls for the careful administration and observation of a trained medical man.

How and why glutamic acid does all these things is still pretty much of a mystery. There are theories, to be sure, but no one yet has come up with a proven answer that all will accept. There is no doubt that, in some way, glutamic acid affects the metabolism, or the ability to build and rebuild the cells, of the brain. The experiments on humans as well as animals have indicated that. But how?

Researchers do know two significant facts that link together and that may supply the key to the riddle. They know that a superchemical called “acetylcholine” is liberated by our nerve endings and is particularly important to the normal functioning of our nervous system. Without the proper supply of acetylcholine, the messages from one nerve centre to another begin to travel more slowly and our nervous system fails. Every movement you make and every thought you have depends on your body’s supply of acetylcholine.

Medical science also knows that glutamic acid apparently speeds up our body’s ability to produce this allimportant acetylcholine. It could be, that by providing a human with additional amounts of glutamic acid we boost the production of acetylcholine and automatically shift his nervous system into a higher gear.

Glutamic acid is by no means a rare drug. Quite the contrary, it is easy to produce in large and inexpensive quantities. Commercially, it can be extracted from wheat glutena fact that gives it its name. It also can be extracted during the process of manufacturing beet sugar. As a matter of fact, whether you’ve ever realized it or not. glutamic acid is pretty much a standard part of your daily diet. Everytime you enjoy such foods as gelatine, beans, coconut, cottonseed oil and peas you are replenishing your own private supply of glutamic acid and helping to boost your production of your nervous system’s acetylcholine.

For years, according to the old wives’ tales which have never withstood the trial of scientific investigation, fish has been the accepted “brain food.” Perhaps, if the glutamic-acid theories stand up under experimental scrutiny, the glutenous types of foods will someday rightfully be known as the real “foods for thought.” ★