How can collagen affect your brain?
When we hear about collagen, it’s possible the first thing that comes to mind is aesthetic medicine. Nicknamed the "elixir of youth", it is indeed very popular among people fighting the external signs of aging. And true, who wouldn't want to feel eternally young and attract attention in their middle age? One of the major signs of aging is the destruction of cartilage tissue and the weakening of bones. And in these cases, collagen does not do badly. Having protective properties, collagen secures cartilage tissue from destruction. It may also reduce inflammation and help with joint pain. Moreover, when paired with calcium, it can effectively lower blood levels of proteins that contribute to bone destruction. You may wonder, though, is that all?
Different shapes and forms
However, let’s start with a basic question – what is collagen, really? And do we already know everything about it? Generally speaking, collagen is a filamentous protein that is the basis of connective tissue. Collagen accounts for approximately one-third of all proteins in our body. Collagen molecules form long, thin protein fibers called fibrils. They serve to bind cells together and enable tissues to withstand stretching. Collagen is a key component of joints, bones, tendons, hair, skin, nails, and teeth. It also forms the walls of veins, arteries, and capillaries.
There are more than 20 types of collagen discovered. It is located in almost every part of our body, including joints, muscles, skin, bones, ligaments, arteries and organs. Usually, five main types of collagen are recognized:
- Type I. This type makes up 90% of the body’s collagen. It essentially builds a “core” of your body. It is densely packed and used to provide structure to your skin, bones, tendons and ligaments.
- Type II. This type is found in elastic cartilage, which provides joint support.
- Type III. This type is found in muscles, arteries and organs.
- Type IV. This type is found in the layers of your skin.
- Type V. This type is found in the cornea of your eyes, some layers of skin, hair and tissue of the placenta.
The must-have for the brain?
In the meantime, the gateway to a completely new area of collagen use has been opened by a study of Japanese scientists where the effects of collagen supplementation with pork gelatine were tested on healthy individuals aged 49-63 years. For four weeks, the subjects were required to consume 5 mg of collagen hydrolysate daily. Participants had no metabolic or mental health co-existing diseases. One of the main objectives was to check the structural changes in the brain based on magnetic resonance imaging. The study aimed to determine gray matter volume and fractional anisotropy of white matter, which is a measure of nerve fiber organization and integrity. Four-week supplementation with hydrolysed collagen was associated with a statistically significant change in the brain’s structure of the subjects. The positive effect refers to the structure and tonicity of the white matter. An interesting observation to note was the significant improvement in cognitive function relative to the verbal paired associate (S-PA) learning test. The test is an assessment of associative and episodic memory in which the task is to learn a set of word pairs. It is noteworthy that there was a moderate correlation between the improvement in white matter structure and the S-PA test score, indicating that the collagen hydrolysate had a positive effect on white matter structure parameters, thereby possibly improving cognitive performance in the linguistic memory test.
Many roles of collagen
Keep in mind, though, that specific types of collagen can have different effects on the body. In the last couple of years, type VI collagen supplementation has attracted attention in terms of its positive effects on neurological conditions. It has been noted for its beneficial effects against Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia or Parkinson’s disease. One of the newest studies shed new light on the association between type VI collagen deficiency in brain function and behavioral abnormalities as well as dysfunction of the dopamine reward system of mice. It was observed that mice with null levels of type VI collagen had noticeable behavioral differences, and overall brain dopamine levels were deregulated, along with a change in the state of the dopaminergic genes in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for, among other things, decision-making. The results of the tests have shown changes in socializing behavior and working memory of the subjects. In addition, reduced amounts of dopamine and serotonin were recognized in the brains of the mice.
Despite the direct benefit on brain function, collagen is also involved in cell attachment and transportation of cells. Collagen scaffolds for cell therapies improve cell survival during and after transplantation, but also foster their attachment, migration, proliferation, and differentiation. These factors are crucial for the functional regeneration as well as repair of damage caused by the neurodegeneration processes related to diseases or injuries. Combinations of collagen with the glycosaminoglycans (GAG) – polysaccharides, which play a crucial role in the regulation of mechanical properties of a tissue – also present novel opportunities as biomaterials that are more structurally similar to the native brain shell that fills the space in between neurons. Japanese scientists concluded that collagen-GAG matrix scaffolds implanted into an area of surgical brain trauma ameliorated neurological deficits, and significantly increased the levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) compared to the control groups. These 2 factors are critical for the growth, survival, and differentiation of developing neurons.
Reducing the stress factor
The links between collagen and stress are characterized by mutual interaction. On one hand, chronic stress activates a fight-or-flight response – the mode occuring when the body is in a threatening situation. But we usually don’t like to be stressed, do we? In addition, such a process boosts the amount of pro-inflammatory molecules, which in long term, supported by chronic stress, could lead to imbalances between pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory systems in the body. Such chronic inflammatory advantage can lead to collagen damage. In contrast, components that are present in collagen, such as glycine and proline, have both indirect and direct effects on the reduction of cortisol and stress factors. Glycine is known for its benefits on sleeping quality. Moreover, it has been found to have a positive effect on reducing neurodegenerative processes triggered by stress. In this way, we can highlight the impact of collagen during nervous situations – perhaps it might play quite an important role before an upcoming test, a business meeting or states of anxiety.
So, what can we do with that knowledge?
When considering supplements that increase the cognitive performance of the brain, collagen is a very unobvious choice, but the effects of its various forms on the brain are noticeable at different levels and in different areas. As mentioned above, collagen positively affects the brain’s white matter tonicity and structure, and promotes significant improvement in cognitive function relative to the linguistic memory test. Also, collagen has been noted to have an effect on dopamine levels in the brain, but this particular area of research requires confirmation in the studies with human participants. Collagen can possibly help us to deal with everyday problems by reducing the stress level with the help of amino acids contained in it. As we can see, the study of collagen in terms of its effect on the brain has many potential areas, but, as of yet, no large knowledge base has been created on the subject. In the near future, collagen could be seen as a complex supplement, combining benefits not only for muscles and skeleton, but also for different organs, including the brain.
Gregorio et al., Collagen VI deficiency causes behavioral abnormalities and cortical dopaminergic dysfunction, Dis Model Mech, 2022
Huang et al., Functional improvement and neurogenesis after collagen-GAG matrix implantation into surgical brain trauma, Biomaterials, 2012
Koizumi et al., Effects of Collagen Hydrolysates on Human Brain Structure and Cognitive Function: A Pilot Clinical Study, Nutrients, 2019