Upgraded MCT Oil vs Upgraded Brain Octane
If you want to read a little more about why I’m even addressing this question, you can check out my rough draft version of this post here. Essentially it’s this:
- Upgraded MCT Oil is marketed as being more beneficial for stimulating metabolism while somewhat helping with brain function and is 100% Capric-Caprylic acid (says so right on the front of the bottle, I will explain what these are later).
- Upgraded Brain Octane is marketed as being primarily for improving brain function. The main difference from MCT Oil being that this is 100% C-8 (says so right on the front of the bottle, I will explain what C-8 is later).
I wanted to know why. If these are both essentially MCTs which we know are broken down into ketones which are then metabolized by both the brain and the body, why would one be more advantageous than the other?
Come along for the ride if you want to know the answer…
What are MCTs?
Medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) are molecules composed of 6 – 12 carbon length fatty acids attached to a glycerol molecule.
Once the fatty acids are detached from the glycerol, they are called medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs).
Caprylic acid is an 8-carbon chain (C8) fatty acid that is also known as octanoic acid.
Capric acid is a 10-carbon chain (C10) fatty acid that is also known is decanoic acid.
The typical MCT mixture is made of a majority of C8 and C10 with the ratios as follows (1):
- C6: 1-2%
- C8: 65-75%
- C10: 25-35%
- C12: 1-2%
I won’t go too far into the details here, but MCTs are absorbed by the intestines, broken down into MCFAs, and processed by the liver much faster (2) than longer chain fats because of their small size and the fact that they can bypass certain rate limiting enzymatic steps that long chain fats can’t (3)
Once they get to the liver they are broken down into Acetyl-CoA which can then do a few things:
- Krebs Cycle – Provide direct energy for the cell
- Ketogenesis – Converted into ketones and then sent out into the blood stream.
- Elongation of fatty acids – Adding more energy to fats the liver is making for the body
- De novo synthesis of fatty acids – Making brand new fats for the body
Option 2 accounts for the majority of the action and that is where we get ketones from when MCT oils are ingested.
These ketones go out into the body where they provide quick and efficient energy for our brain, heart and other tissues.
So when the descriptions say that these are a fast source of fuel, it’s a fact.
Just to reiterate, both C8 and C10 get broken down into the same molecule, Acetyl-CoA, which is then converted into ketones. It’s these ketones that have been shown to help with weight loss by stimulating the metabolism and by suppressing appetite, among other things.
So at this point, there is no real difference between C8 or C10, they are both good for the metabolism.
Direct Passage of MCFAs into the Blood
Now here is where things become very interesting. Once MCTs are broken down into their component MCFAs, octanoic acid and decanoic acid, a small amount of these can bypass the liver without being processed and spread throughout the body (4-7).
MCFAs and the Blood Brain Barrier
Once octanoic acid and decanoic acid reach the brain, both of them can pass through the blood brain barrier (8-12).
Again, at this point, nothing is different between C8 and C10.
C8 vs C10 aka Octanoic Acid vs Decanoic Acid aka Caprylic Acid vs Capric Acid
This is the step where we can actually address the question of whether or not one is better for the brain.
In one of the most cited papers, Sills et al examined the role of octanoic and decanoic acids in controlling seizures in pediatric patients (13). After giving an adding MCT oil do their diet (81% C8 and 15% C10), she found that seizures were much better controlled, and they were able to detect blood levels of both C8 and C10. They also found that there was a much greater concentration of C8 in the blood compared to C10 (it was never mentioned that this was supposed to happen given the concentrations found in the MCT oil they administered).
This was the study that kicked off all the other studies exploring the benefits of MCT oil and seizures using octanoic acid as the blood marker that was followed. The scientific community surmised that since C8 was the majority component of MCT oil, it must also be the reason for all the benefits seen with MCT oils as well. There were numerous studies thus focused on the effects of C8 on seizures (14, 22).
It was only recently that more data as started coming out suggesting that C8 (15, 16, 17) is actually ineffective in controlling seizures, and that C10 is the main player (18).
A very recently published paper by Hughes et al this January explored the effect of C8 and C10 on the mitochondria of neurons (19) because some believe that mitochondrial dysfunction plays a significant role in seizures (20). In this experiment, they exposed the neurons of mice to varying concentrations of C8 : C10
- 40 : 60
- 20 : 80
- 10 : 90
- 0 : 100
They found that in the concentrations that were 100% C10 and 90% C10 to 10% C8 there was an increase in mitochondrial activity and number. This led them to suspect that it was in fact the C10 that was the primary player in reducing seizure activity.
So at least in terms of seizure control, it’s starting to look like C10 aka capric acid, is the main factor when taking MCTs.
How much this translates into the benefit of ‘improved brain function,’ I’m not sure…
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
Again touching upon the theory that mitochondrial dysfunction is at the root of a neurologic process, in 2013 Zhao et al examined the benefits of C8 as a treatment for ALS in mice (21). In mice treated with C8, they found that there was a significantly higher number of neurons in the spinal cord, meaning that C8 helped prevent the typical destruction of neurons that were seen with the control mice.
If this panned out to be apply to humans as well it would be huge!
I looked into the C8 that they used for their study and it was obtained here. As you can see, this pharmaceutical grade caprylic acid is going for $350 per liter, which makes the Upgraded Brain Octane (32oz) being sold for $45.95 seem like a total bargain!
Given the findings with seizures, I would be very interested to see the effect 100% C10 would have on the ALS.
Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)
Just released this year, Sharma et al explore the use of a proprietary MCT oil blend called Axona on the treatment of Alzheimer’s (23). The most I can find on Axona is that “the largest ingredient…is caprylic acid,” so who knows what the concentration is.
The thinking behind the benefits of MCTs in AD is that in AD patients there are reports suggesting that brain glucose metabolism is slowed which can have a bad effect on the hippocampus, the area responsible for memory. Scientists have hypothesized that providing an increased energy supply to the brain via ketones can have a beneficial effect.
Unfortunately, what they found in their review of clinical trials was that MCTs mildly improved cognition in a particular subset of patients: those that were apolipoprotein E4-negative genotype.
So at least in terms of Alzheimer’s disease, MCTs are somewhat beneficial in a specific subset, and we have no idea whether it is the C8 or C10 or both that provides the benefit.
Cognition in Hypoglycemic Type 1 Diabetics
This was a very interesting study most closely answering the question of whether MCTs are good for improving brain function or not.
Page et al administered MCTs (67% C8, 27% C10, and 6% other) to type 1 diabetics who underwent a barrage of cognitive function tests while they had normal blood sugars.
They then induced hypoglycemia and performed the cognitive tests again. During this phase, the experimental group received MCTs while the control group received a placebo.
Normally people who are hypoglycemic will demonstrate a decline in cognitive function, ie it will be harder for them to focus and pay attention, they won’t be able to remember things as well, it will be more difficult performing higher level calculations etc.
The scientists wanted to determine if MCTs could provide an alternative fuel source during hypoglycemic episodes (24), thereby preventing a decline in cognitive function.
They found that MCT ingestion significantly prevented the expected decline in memory and attention during hypoglycemia.
In the same study they also tried to determine if it was the ketones (Beta hydroxybutyrate) or the MCFA octanoic acid itself that preserved brain function in mice brains, and found that it was in fact the ketones that were responsible for that benefit. Octanoic acid (C8) by itself didn’t improve brain function.
Unfortunately they didn’t measure the effect of decanoic acid (C10) despite the fact that it constituted 27% of their MCT solution.
So again, here we know that ketones are good for the brain and MCTs consisting of both C8 and C10 are good for the brain, but no clear answer for C8 vs C10.
CONCLUSION: Upgraded MCT Oil vs Upgraded Brain Octane
MCTs are good for the brain because they provide direct and indirect sources of energy for the brain:
- Direct – The fatty acids themselves, C8 and C10 (caprylic and capric aka octanoic vs decanoic acid) can be metabolized by the brain.
- Indirect – MCTs (both C8 and C10) are broken down into ketones, which can then be metabolized by the brain.
After reading this I hope you will come to the same conclusions that I have:
- Both Upgraded MCT Oil and Upgrade Brain Octane are good for stimulating the metabolism
- Both are broken down into the same molecule, Acetyl-CoA, which is then used to make ketones, which stimulate the metabolism and suppress appetite.
- Both Upgraded MCT Oil and Upgraded Brain Octane provide ketones which are good for the brain
- There isn’t enough data out there to indicate whether Upgraded Brain Octane is actually better for cognitive function. What we DO have data for is:
- C10 is actually more important in seizure prevention than C8, so if you have seizures, Upgraded MCT Oil will be better for you.
- C8 is better than nothing in preserving spinal neurons in mice with ALS, so if you have ALS or any other neuro-degenerative disorder Upgraded Brain Octane MAY be better for you. No one has looked into the effects of different ratios of C8 : C10.
- MCTs are mildly helpful if you have Alzheimer’s and have the Apolipoprotein E4 (-) genotype, however we don’t know which would be better for you, Upgraded Brain Octane or Upgraded MCT Oil since we don’t know what the hell the breakdown of Axona is.
- MCTs are great if you are prone to hypoglycemia, so if you are prone to hypoglycemic episodes, Upgraded MCT Oil is what you should take since it most closely resembles the solution used in this study.
What Will I Be Doing?
I’ve personally used both Upgraded MCT ($29.95) and Upgraded Brain Octane ($45.95) and haven’t noticed a difference, so given the price differential and the current data available, I’m probably just going to stick with Upgraded MCT Oil from now on.
I’ve done my best to include all the relevant research available. I’ve personally read through each of these studies and have provided the pubmed links below. Some articles will be available in their entirety for free, others will require a membership or payment. Since I have some academic affiliations, I was able to get access to all of the full articles.
(7) Haidukewych D, Forsythe WI, Sills M. Monitoring octanoic and decanoic acids in plasma from children with intractable epilepsy treated with medium-chain triglyceride diet. Clin Chem. 1982 Apri;28(4pt1):642-5.
(11) Kuge Y, Yajima K, Kawashima H, et al. Brain uptake and metabolism of [1-11C]octanoate in rats: pharmacokinetic basis for its application as a radiopharmaceutical for studying brain fatty acid metabolism. Ann Nucl Med. 1995 Aug:9(3):137-42.
(14) Wlaz P, Socala K, Nieoczym D et al. Anticonvulsant profile of caprylic acid, a main constituent of the medium chain triglyceride (MCT) ketogenic diet, in mice. Neuropharmacology. 2012 Mar;62(4):1882-9.
(15) Brill J, Lee M, Zhao S, et al. Chronic valproic acid treatment triggers increased neuropeptide y expression and signaling in rat nucleus reticularis thalami. J Neurosci. 2006 Jun 21;26(25):6813-22.
(16) Hou X, Wang X, Zhang L. Conditional downregulation of brain-derived neurotrophic factor and tyrosine kinase receptor B blocks epileptogenesis in the human temporal lobe epilepsy hippocampus. Neurol India. 2010 Jan-Feb;58(1):29-34.
(17) Liu MJ, Pollack GM. Pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of valproate analogues in rats. IV. Anticonvulsant action and neurotoxicity of octanoic acid, cyclohexanecarboxylic acid, and 1-methyl-1-cyclohexanecarboxylic acid. Epilepsia. 1994 Jan-Feb;35(1):234-43.
(19) Hughes SD, Kanabus M, Anderson G et al. The ketogenic diet component decanoic acid increases mitochondrial citrate synthase and complex I activity in neuronal cells. J Neurochem. 2014 Jan 3. Doi:10.1111/jnc.12646. [Epub ahead of print]
(21) Zhao W, Varghese M, Vempati P et al. Caprylic triglyceride as a novel therapeutic approach to effectively improve the performance and attenuate the symptoms due to the motor neuron loss in ALS disease. PLoS One. 2012;7(11):e49191.
(23) Sharma A, Bemis M, Desilets AR. Role of Medium Chain Triglycerides (Axona(R)) in the Treatment of Mild to Moderate Alzheimer’s Disease. Am J Alzheimers Dis Other Demen. 2014 Jan 9 [Epub ahead of print].
(24) Page KA, Williamson A, Yu N, et al. Medium-chain fatty acids improve cognitive function in intensively treated type 1 diabetic patients and support in vitro synaptic transmission during acute hypoglycemia. Diabetes. 2009 May;58(5):1237-44.