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How Selegiline Protects Your Brain and Keeps You Young

By: Courtney Sperlazza, MPH

How Selegiline Protects Your Brain and Keeps You Young
  • Everyone is looking for that magic pill to make you run faster, jump higher, think faster, and live longer. That may not exist for now, but there’s one prescription drug that people swear by to increase lifespan and brain functioning, even though it’s minimally researched and not widely prescribed: selegiline.
  • There are billions of brain cells in the brain, and they communicate with each other through neurotransmitters.
  • One type of neurotransmitter is dopamine, the reward and pleasure brain chemical. An enzyme called MAO-B makes sure you don’t have too much, but MAO-B starts to rise after age 45 which tanks your dopamine.
  • Selegiline slows down MAO-B so it breaks down less dopamine. It also protects surrounding brain cells, strengthens them, and helps you make new brain cells.

Is selegiline the answer to keeping you young?

Everyone is looking for that magic pill to make you run faster, jump higher, think faster, and live longer. That may not exist for now, but there’s one prescription drug that people swear by to increase lifespan and brain functioning, even though it’s minimally researched and not widely prescribed. You’ll read about the smart drug in a minute, but first, a little on how everything works together in the brain, so that you can understand the action of selegiline. Read on to find out how a smart drug (aka nootropic) called selegiline might strengthen your brain and make you live longer.

Related: 11 Nootropics to Unlock Your True Brain

Brain cells, neurotransmitters and dopamine

How Selegiline Protects Your Brain and Keeps You Young_Brain cells, neurotransmitters and dopamine

There are billions of brain cells in the brain, and they communicate with each other through neurotransmitters. One type of neurotransmitter is dopamine.

Dopamine is a brain chemical that is involved in emotions, pleasure sensations and the brain’s reward and motivation mechanisms. Dopamine also helps you control movement, which is why dopamine deficiency leads to Parkinson’s Disease.[1]

So, you want to load up on dopamine, right?

Not exactly — you want just the right amount. Too much dopamine can lead to psychosis, euphoria, aggression, paranoia, and other things you don’t want. Luckily, the amazing human brain has a mechanism in place to keep your dopamine in check. You naturally produce an enzyme called monoamine oxidase B, or MAO-B, that eats up extra dopamine.

What does MAO-B do

MAO-B is an enzyme that hangs around the membranes of your mitochondria (your cells’ battery packs) in the brain. MAO-B eats up neurotransmitters, including dopamine.[2] [3]

Okay, so you want to make sure you have a ton of MAO-B, then?

Nope. Again, you want just the right amount. If you don’t have enough MAO-B, your dopamine climbs and you could have some severe effects, like detaching from reality. Too much MAO-B and your dopamine tanks, which can make you feel unmotivated, unable to feel pleasure, withdrawn, emotionally flat, you may have problems with libido or concentration…the list goes on and on.

On top of that, MAO-B puts surrounding cells in harm’s way simply by doing its thing. The enzymatic destruction of neurotransmitters releases free radicals, which subject surrounding cells to oxidative stress and destruction. That’s a problem if you like having as many working brain cells as you can.

As with everything, balance is key.

Unless you’re dealing with neurological or psychological issues, the MAO-B checks-and-balances system serves you well until about age 45. Around then, your MAO-B levels start to rise year over year, which means dopamine starts to break down faster than you replenish it. After years of steady decline, dopamine levels are severely low in the elderly.[4][5][6][7]

Hack your brain with selegiline

How Selegiline Protects Your Brain and Keeps You Young_Hack your brain with selegiline

People are starting to hack their dopamine breakdown with selegiline, also known as deprenyl. Selegiline blocks the enzymatic activity of MAO-B, which slows the breakdown of neurotransmitters, including dopamine.

Since Parkinson’s disease has a lot to do with how your dopamine is working, doctors prescribe selegiline in pill form to treat early-stage Parkinson’s disease, specifically for the movement problems that arise. Typically, doctors will prescribe dopamine precursors alongside it.

Together, they do double-duty to increase the available dopamine — first, by making extra dopamine, and second, by blocking the enzyme that destroys dopamine.[8]

There’s also a selegiline patch (EMSAM) that doctors prescribe to treat major depression, and it doesn’t affect sexual function like other antidepressants do.[9]

Selegiline protects nerves

Helping MAO-B chill out is only part of the program. Selegiline increases neurotrophic factors, compounds that strengthen existing neurons and support the growth of new neurons. It also increases superoxide dismutase, an antioxidant that breaks down harmful substances in cells to help avoid tissue damage that leads to hardening of the arteries, heart attack, stroke and other inflammatory conditions.[10] Both of these selegiline benefits have nothing to do with its effects on MAO-B.[11][12][13][14]

Selegiline for longevity

How Selegiline Protects Your Brain and Keeps You Young_Selegiline for longevity

Selegiline could make you live longer. A handful of animal studies in the 1980s and 1990s showed measurable increases in the lifespan of rats after supplementing with selegiline.[15][16][17][18] One study showed that giving rats selegiline not only made them live longer but also restored some behaviors that are typical of younger rats, particularly mating behaviors.[19] These results make sense, because you cannot live once dopamine drops too low.

People without neurodegenerative disorders may benefit from low doses of selegiline to prevent excessive MAO-B, and resulting drops in dopamine, especially after age 45. The maintenance dose to prevent MAO-B toxicity is much lower than the dose prescribed for Parkinson’s or depression — instead of administering selegiline daily, you might take a lower dose only a few times per week.

How to get selegiline

Selegiline is a prescription medication, so you’ll need to get it from your doctor. MDs may not readily prescribe selegiline to protect your brain or increase your motivation. If you don’t have Parkinson’s or major depression, your doctor will most likely consider it off-label use.

You might have better luck talking to a functional or integrative medicine doctor about it — they may be more likely to acknowledge the protective and preventive benefits of selegiline. It’ll vary from doctor to doctor, and most insurance companies will deny claims for drugs without the proper diagnosis to go with it. So, if you doctor goes for it, be prepared to pay for selegiline out-of-pocket.

The downsides of selegiline

Selegiline interacts with other psychoactive medications and some over-the-counter medicines like dextromethorphan (an ingredient in some cough suppressants).[20] Your prescribing doctor or pharmacist can check your meds for interactions so you don’t get yourself into trouble.

There are physical and mental side effects to oral selegiline, like nausea, sleep disturbances, impaired movement control, changes in heart rate, confusion, and more. A lot of the side effects are because of extra dopamine, which your doctor can remedy by scaling back on L-DOPA and other dopamine precursors that doctors prescribe alongside selegiline.[21] If you’re starting with good dopamine levels and supplementing with selegiline, you might notice the effects of too much dopamine.

Side effects for the patch form aren’t as severe. Users report irritation at the site of application, sleep disturbances, and digestive troubles, among other more mild side effects.[22] Manufacturers of the selegiline patch warn of an increased risk of suicide, as do all antidepressant medications.[23]

People who use low-dose selegiline for longevity notice positive changes in motivation, energy, concentration, and more. If that’s you, enjoy the benefits! If you try it and you notice problems with attention, anxiety, sleep, or other negative effects, it might not be for you. Keep your prescribing physician apprised of any side effects, and monitor your behavior closely.

And when you start any new supplement or smart drug, consider whether it’s worth popping pills if you eat garbage, if you spend a lot of time on the couch, and have an unhealthy, stress-filled lifestyle. The most basic recipe for living a long time is to stop doing the things that make you weak, then add in the things that help you operate at max power.

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