Lutein and brain health: Enriched formula leads to selective increases in multiple brain regions

By Stephen Daniells contact

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© iStock/iLexx
© iStock/iLexx

Related tags: Lutein

Enriching infant formula with lutein leads to selectively increased levels of the carotenoid in the brain, with the highest amounts in the visual processing center, the occipital cortex, says a new study.

On the other hand, other carotenoids, including lycopene and zeaxanthin, were not detected in any brain region of infant rhesus macaques.

The study’s findings, published in Nutrients​, support the importance of lutein for brain health, and the study itself is said to be the first to report lutein bioaccumulation patterns in non-human primate infants fed infant formulas.

“Lutein has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in vitro and in vivo. Considering that infants can be at special risk of oxidative stress, lutein’s role as an antioxidant may be essential in early life,” ​wrote the researchers.

“Continuing to uncover the connection between lutein and brain health”

This work was funded by Abbott Nutrition, and Matt Kuchan, PhD, nutrition scientist at Abbott and co-author on the study, told NutraIngredients-USA: “This was a preliminary study conducted as a precursor to additional research. The goal was to ask questions that had not previously been asked around how various formulas impact the level of lutein and vitamin E in the brain and other tissues.

“Through our preclinical and clinical research at the Center for Nutrition Learning & Memory and through other partnerships with researchers and universities around the world, we are continuing to uncover the connection between lutein and other key nutrients on brain development, memory and cognition, for people of all ages.”

From eyes to the brain

Lutein is most commonly associated with eye health, but numerous studies with data from primates, children, middle-aged people, and the elderly now support the importance of lutein in brain health.  

Data 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 appears to be a preference for lutein in the brain (Vishwanathan et al. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr​. 2014).

“Among dietary carotenoids, lutein is preferentially deposited in the human infant brain and retina, a finding that suggests a role in the development of these tissues,” ​wrote the authors of the new paper in Nutrients​. “Although lutein has been supplemented in some commercial infant formulas, its bioaccumulation pattern is not well understood in early life stages.”

Pilot study details

The researchers divided infant rhesus macaques into two groups, feeding one group a formula supplemented with lutein, zeaxanthin, beta-carotene and lycopene, while the other group were fed a control formula with low levels of these carotenoids.

Results from four months of formula feeding indicated that lutein levels in the carotenoid-fed animals were five times higher than in the control group.

All of the brain regions examined – the prefrontal cortex, the occipital cortex, the superior temporal cortex, the striatum, the cerebellum, and the hippocampus – all displayed selective increases in lutein deposition, with the highest amounts in the occipital cortex.

While no accumulation of lycopene and zeaxanthin was detected, small amounts of beta-carotene were detected across the brain regions, said the researchers.

Infants receiving the enriched formula also had higher lutein concentrations in peripheral retina but not in macular retina.

“One possible explanation is that lutein was preferentially deposited in the macular region in the first few weeks of life, prior to the initiation of formula feeding, whereas lutein in the peripheral retina continued to increase over the next four months in the supplemented group,” ​explained the researchers.

“In conclusion, in our small pilot study we found that increased early exposure to dietary lutein leads to enhancement of lutein tissue deposition. Notably, we found differential deposition of lutein in brain and adipose areas. Additional studies will be required to determine if lutein has a different half-life across different brain areas and other tissues and, more importantly, if lutein has a functional role in development of the brain, retina, and other organ systems.”

Source: Nutrients
2017, Volume 9, No. 1, Page 51; doi:10.3390/nu9010051 
“Effect of Carotenoid Supplemented Formula on Carotenoid Bioaccumulation in Tissues of Infant Rhesus Macaques: A Pilot Study Focused on Lutein”
Authors: S. Jeon et al.

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