The older we get, the longer our to-do lists get (so it seems) and the tougher it seems to focus and get things done.

If that frustration sounds familiar, you'll want to pay attention to news from a recent study about a nutrient called citicoline. Researchers say that it helps sharpen mental focus.

Citicoline is a naturally occurring chemical found in cells, including brain cells. Earlier studies showed that citicoline (also called CDPcholine) improved memory and attention in seniors with mild-to-moderate memory loss. It also helped individuals with dementia caused by small strokes to recover some cognitive functions. The recent study, though, is thought to be the first to examine the compound's effects on healthy middle-aged people.

Published in Food and Nutrition Sciences, the recent study included 60 healthy women ages 40 to 60. For 28 days, participants took either 250 mg of citicoline daily...500 mg of citicoline daily...or a placebo. Neither the women nor the investigators were told which participants had been assigned to which regimen until the study was over. On day 28, each participant completed a 14-minute computerized version of a standard test often used to gauge sustained attention and focus. Specifically, they were asked to pay close attention as individual letters flashed on a computer screen for one-quarter of a second each and to press the keyboard's space bar whenever any letter other than X appeared. Mistakes were either by commission (hitting the bar when an X flashed by) or omission (not hitting the bar when another letter appeared).

Impressive results: Women who had taken citicoline at either dosage made fewer errors of both commission and omission than women who had taken a placebo. Interestingly, the lower-dose citicoline group performed best of all.

The study's lead author, Erin McGlade, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the University of Utah Brain Institute in Salt Lake City, explains, "This study suggests that citicoline helps with what I call the 'spacing out that can accompany aging. For example, if I'm at work trying to read article after article, instead of my mind wandering to, “Where am I going tonight?" the citicoline helps me focus on what I need to do at that moment."

Why it works: Researchers theorize that citicoline increases brain levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is closely linked to our ability to focus. As we get older, it becomes harder to rein in our focus, a phenomenon that has been linked to having fewer available dopamine receptors, Dr. McGlade said. Citicoline may boost dopamine to help us pay attention to the task at hand. The nutrient also helps keep brain cell membranes healthy.

If you want to give citicoline a try: Unless you're fond of organ meats such as liver and brains, you're unlikely to get a substantial amount of citicoline in your diet. Because the nutrient appears in only small quantities in other foods, taking supplements of citicoline may be the easiest way to be sure of getting a therapeutic dosage.

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Remember, the current study found that a dose as low as 250 mg resulted in increased attention (the brand used in the study was Cognizin). Certain energy drinks also have citicoline-but these typically do not contain the efficacious amount, Dr. McGlade noted, so be sure to check product labels.

Though long-term studies of the potential side effects of citicoline have yet to be done, side effects appear to occur only occasionally and mostly involve mild gastrointestinal upset. As a general precaution, citicoline should not be used by women who are pregnant or breast-feeding.

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