If we can get people to feel better more quickly, theyre more likely to stay with treatment and, ultimately, have better outcomes. —Dr. Perry Renshaw, University of Utah Brain Institute

SALT LAKE CITY — Athletes know all about an amino acid called creatine. It’s been used for decades to improve performance in competition.

Our body makes about half of what we need. The rest comes from eating meat and fish. But this dietary supplement appears to do a lot more than just build muscles.

Researchers at the University of Utah and three South Korean universities have documented what may be the brain protecting properties of this substance.

The eight-week study included 52 women, ages 19-65, with depression. All were taking the antidepressant Lexapro. Researchers observed dramatic improvements in women's brain chemistry after combining only 5 grams of creatine with their daily doses of antidepressant medications.

Half of those in the creatine group showed no signs of depression compared with one-quarter in the placebo group.

“What we found is that if you were taking creatine together with your antidepressant from the start, that you would get better twice and fast and twice as much as women who just got the placebo,” said Dr. Perry Renshaw with the University of Utah Brain Institute. “If we can get people to feel better more quickly, they’re more likely to stay with treatment and, ultimately, have better outcomes.”

There were no significant adverse side effects associated with creatine.

Creatine is a popular supplement among bodybuilders and athletes who are trying to add muscle mass or improve athletic ability. Inside the body, it is converted into phosphocreatine and stored in muscle. During high-intensity exercise, phosphocreatine is converted into an energy source for cells.

How creatine works against depression is not exactly known. Renshaw and his colleagues suggest that the body's making of more phosphocreatine may contribute to the earlier and greater response to antidepressants. Typically, antidepressants take four to six weeks to start working. Those in the study using creatine saw improvements in as early as two weeks.

Though the collaborative study with South Korea involved only women, creatine has the potential to benefit both women and men. For those who don’t respond well to antidepressants, creatine could become an inexpensive way to improve treatment outcomes.

The university now has a grant from the Institutes of Health to expand the study to adolescents who have been taking antidepressants but haven’t really been feeling better. Researchers will also look at doses. Is 4 grams of creatine enough, or would higher doses bring on even more dramatic results?

"Getting people to feel better faster is the Holy Grail of treating depression," he said.

But depression isn’t the only malady that creatine seems to treat effectively. Its protective effect on the brain is now being tested in third-stage clinical trials on patients with Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease.

“Creatine is really emerging as a compound which may have benefits for the brain that we really have never considered," Renshaw said. "There are a number of cell and animal experiments where we have a great deal of experimental control that shows adding creatine to the solution in cells or administering it as a supplement to animals does really protect against a range of different brain insults.”

The applications just keep expanding. How about drug addiction? Matt, who prefers to keep his full identity anonymous, remains hopeful creatine might become a part of drug rehabilitation. He was addicted to methamphetamine at age 18 and is now going through rehab at the Journey Healing Centers at Willow Creek. Matt is doing very well in recovery and is now able to recognize how meth addiction was destroying his life.  

“I had lost all emotions," he said. “I had no family left. I had completely destroyed all relationships. You burn all your bridges, leaving nothing behind but sadness.”

Since depression is as much a part of drug addiction as the addiction itself, creatine may speed up the therapy process. The supplement appears to improve mood, memory and cognitive function, and may actually protect the brain from methamphetamine damage, especially in young people.

“For now, we are recruiting methamphetamine-using women who would like to try creatine," Renshaw said. "Our hypothesis: They’ll show improvement in mood and cognitive function, which could make it easier to use less amphetamine."

Michael Desjardins, who works with those undergoing rehab at the Journey Centers, said, “We know methamphetamine causes damage to the neurons of the brain, and we know that when we have damage like that you have a harder time thinking. You have a harder time processing. A substance like creatine, which is natural, is something they could take for a period of time to improve the way they engage in treatment.

"The whole concept is exciting to all of us in the substance abuse treatment community.”

Though Matt hasn’t participated in any creatine studies he said, “It’s pretty amazing if it can do what they say it does."

“Creatine begs that we understand it better than we do,” Renshaw said.  

The University of Utah is planning to expand several of its creatine based depression studies since the state’s population here has a high rate of the disorder. According to estimates, the incidence in Utah is about 25 percent higher than the rest of the country.