Brain boosting bioactives, Part 1: From omega-3 to vitamin E

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

Image: © iStockPhoto
Image: © iStockPhoto

Related tags Mild cognitive impairment Nutrition

Memory, attention and focus, development, mood; there are numerous ways that a nutrient or ingredient can affect cognitive health. But which have the most science, how do they work, and how are they performing in the market?

In the run-up to the NutraIngredients-USA’s Cognitive Health Online Summit on September 2, 2015, we’re taking a look at the leading ingredients… [Editor’s note: The list is not intended to be exhaustive but a "30,000 foot" review of the key ingredients]


The omega-3 fatty acid DHA is seen by many industry observers as the king of ingredients in cognitive health, and there is also a solid body of science supporting the potential brain benefits of EPA.

A 2013 review by Tommy Cederholm (Uppsala University, Sweden), Norman Salem Jr (DSM Nutritional Products), and Jan Palmblad (Karolinska Institutet, Sweden) concluded that, “Recent advances bring us closer to providing the general public with new evidence-based recommendations on fish and fish oil intake to facilitate memory function during aging.

“We may conclude that longitudinal observation studies on fish intake and DHA plasma concentrations in older healthy adults are mainly positive when it comes to cognitive health,”​ they wrote in Advances in Nutrition​ (Vol. 4, pp. 672-676, doi:  10.3945/an.113.004556). “Intervention studies on EPA and DHA supplementation in healthy older individuals are so far null.

“When EPA and DHA is given to individuals with [mild cognitive impairment] or age-related cognitive impairment the data now appear to be positive. However, when patients with established Alzheimer’s Diseaseare supplemented with EPA and DHA it appears that no clear benefit is achieved. A major concern is that the studies in general have been too short. There might also be subgroup effects because of the carriage of apolipoprotein Ee4 alleles or risk factor burden in general not yet clearly identified.”

Omega-3s and B vitamins

A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition​ found a link between omega-3 levels and B vitamins against age-related brain wasting (atrophy).

Intervention studies with B vitamins have yielded disappointing results in people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia, but the new data suggests that omega-3 status is also vitally important.

cognitive elderly newspaper
Image © iStockPhoto

Data from the VITACOG trial indicated that high-dose B vitamin supplementation slowed (atrophy in people with MCI by 40% but only when omega-3 levels were already high. In people with low blood levels of omega-3, however, supplements of folic acid plus vitamins B6 and B12 had no beneficial effect.

Commenting on the study’s findings Harry Rice, PhD, VP of regulatory & scientific affairs for the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED), told us: “That brain atrophy rates were lowest in those with the highest plasma omega-3 levels is clearly an exciting finding. Pending confirmatory results, this could lead to nutrition recommendations with a widespread impact on the aging population.

“While the authors alluded to it, they never came out and said it, but the results from this research provide further evidence that we need to be cognizant of a full range of nutrients, not just one.”

Dr Rice will join Dr. Richard Bazinet (The University of Toronto), Dr Scott Minton (Nordic Naturals) and me for a discussion of the knowledge gaps for omega-3s and cognitive health at the upcoming NutraIngredients-USA’s Cognitive Health Online Summit​.

Vitamin E

From the B vitamins to vitamin E, the potential brain health benefits of tocopherols and tocotrienols are linked predominantly to their antioxidant effects, which play a key role protecting membranes for oxidation, and omega-3 fatty acids from peroxidation.

Several European epidemiological studies led by researchers from renowned academic institutions such as the Karolinksa Institutet of Stockholm, Sweden and University of Perugia, Italy – collectively found that blood plasma levels of all vitamin E forms (ie : tocopherols and tocotrienols) in elderly population, plays an important role in the development of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.

However, over 90% of Americans are reportedly not consuming the RDA for vitamin E, with most getting less than half of the RDA.

For more insights on vitamin E for brain health, please read: Vitamin E: The ‘overlooked’ nutrient and its brain health benefits.

Lifestages, omega-3s, probiotics, and market dynamics

Experts from Abbott Nutrition, GOED, Nordic Naturals, The University of Toronto, McMaster University, and NutraIngredients-USA will discuss a range of cognitive health topics during NutraIngredients-USA’s Cognitive Health Online Summit​.

PhosphatidylSerine (PS)

There is a good deal of evidence to support the role of PS during early brain development, and the lack of it during mental deterioration.

PS is a naturally occurring phospholipid found in organs with high metabolic activity, such as the brain, lungs, heart, liver and skeletal muscle. The nutrient has a variety of unique regulatory and structural functions, including modulating the activity of receptors, enzymes, ion channels and signaling molecules.

In the US, the FDA permits a qualified health claim for PS​ relating to reducing the risk of cognitive dysfunction and dementia in the elderly.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the European Food Safety Authority has rejected three EU nutrition and health claim regulation (NHCR) submissions without assessing the data on the grounds that the nutrient was insufficiently characterized.

Magnesium – the hottest mineral around

Magnesium © sasimoto
Image: © iStockPhoto / sasimoto

Magnesium, which is necessary for more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body, has been the focus of interest in the brain health sector. The charge into the brain health realm is being led by the magnesium L-threonate ingredient branded Magtein by Magceutics. The ingredient is distributed by AIDP.

With between 70 and 80% of the US population not meeting their recommended intakes of magnesium, consumers – and the health care professionals who advise them - are waking up to the importance of the mineral.

Data from animal studies supports the suggests that Magtein may enhance many areas of the memory related brain functions (for example, Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior​, 2013, Vol. 106, Pages 16-26).


With the eyes and brain so closely connected, it comes as no surprise that lutein is emerging as a key ingredient in cognitive health.

Recent findings from pediatric brain tissue studies have shown that about 60% of the total carotenoids in the pediatric brain tissue is lutein, and yet NHANES data show that lutein is only about 12% of the carotenoids in the diets, so there is a preference for lutein in the brain (Vishwanathan et al. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr​. 2014).

brain and eye
“The eye and the brain are connected, so it’s no surprise lutein is important for brain health,” Dick Roberts, PhD, Kemin Human Nutrition and Health Division, told us recently.Image © iStockPhoto

The mechanism of action for lutein is probably more than its action as an antioxidant, since there is a lot more alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E) in the brain than lutein, but no link between alpha-tocopherol and cognitive function.

A recently published paper by Billy Hammond’s group at the University of Georgia (Neurobiology of Aging​, 2014, Vol. 35, pp. 1695-9) reported that macular pigment optical density (MPOD), which is representative of lutein and zeaxanthin status, was related to general cognition in people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), while MPOD was only related to visual-spatial and constructional abilities in healthy older adults.

“The present data are the first to relate function in cognitively impaired individuals with an in vivo measure of lutein and zeaxanthin in central nervous system tissue and, to our knowledge, the first to relate function in MCI persons to lutein and zeaxanthin status,” ​they wrote.

To read our article about lutein and brain health, please click HERE​.

Please click HERE​ to read, Brain boosting bioactives, Part 2: From citicoline and curcumin to resveratrol 

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