Nutritional modulators in early brain development

By Dr Matthew J Kuchan
Senior Principal Research Scientist, Global Cognition Platform Lead
Abbott Nutrition Science Lead for the Center for Nutrition Learning and Memory
University of Illinois, USA

The dramatic development of the brain in early life is fuelled by nutrition. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is well-recognized as a key building block in the brain; however there are many other nutrients, which accrete in the developing brain such as protein, minerals (e.g. iron), lutein and vitamins (e.g. choline and vitamin E). Most of these nutrients cannot be made in the human body and must be obtained from the diet.

Vitamin E

The form of vitamin E which meets human requirements is known as α-tocopherol. Natural α-tocopherol found in food has an RRR configuration, whereas chemically synthesized vitamin E contains a mixture of eight stereoisomers of α-tocopherol. Synthetic vitamin E is only half as active as RRR-α-tocopherol (i.e. natural vitamin E or NVE).1

Earlier research has shown that RRR-α-tocopherol is preferentially selected by the placenta, as evidenced by a higher ratio of NVE over synthetic vitamin E in cord blood.2 Recent studies have also supported the bio-selection of RRR-α-tocopherol by the body. NVE was found to be the predominant stereoisomer of α-tocopherol in human breast milk,3 as well as the developing brain.4


Lutein is a carotenoid, which selectively accumulates in the human eye and has been shown to support eye health.5,6 Emerging evidence indicates that lutein is also preferentially accumulated in the brain – concentration of lutein was found to be greater than other carotenoids in different regions of the brain.7

Increasingly, lutein is being implicated to have a role in cognitive function. Lutein appears to be involved in stimulating the early development of stem cells into neural cells.8 In adults, studies have demonstrated a correlation between lutein levels and cognitive performance.9,10 Recent research has also found a positive correlation between macular lutein and children’s performance on a validated test of academic achievement.11

Power of three

New in vitro research suggests that the combination NVE, lutein and DHA may be able to enhance neuronal development. A cell culture study involving the treatment of neuronal cell cultures with this combination of nutrients has shown that 81% more neurite outgrowth occurred compared to treatment with DHA alone.12

Co-location of vitamin E, lutein and DHA Vitamin E, lutein and DHA have been found together in brain membranes,13 where they may have complimentary roles.14 Being potent antioxidants, both vitamin E and lutein can offer protection to DHA, which is highly susceptible to oxidation.


Multiple nutrients are required for the biological processes that drive rapid brain growth in early life. Emerging evidence has highlighted the potential role of RRR-α-tocopherol and lutein in the developing brain. Continued research will elucidate the functional relationship between NVE, lutein and DHA.

1. US National Institutes of Health. Vitamin E: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Accessed on 4 December 2016.
2. Acuff R V, et al. Am J Clin Nutr 1998;67:459-464.
3. Moulton C, et al. 2nd International Congress on Nutrition and Growth. Barcelona, Spain; 2014.
4. Kuchan MJ, et al. Br J Nutr 2016;116:126-131.
5. Krinsky NI, et al. Annu Rev Nutr 2003;23:171-201.
6. Landrum JT, Bone RA. Arch Biochem Biophys 2001;385:28-40.
7. Johnson EJ. Nutr Rev 2014;72:605-612.
8. Wang F, et al. Advances and Controversies in Clinical Nutrition. Washington, D.C., USA; December 5–7, 2013.
9. Johnson EJ, et al. J Aging Res 2013;2013:951786.
10. Feeney J, et al. Neurobiol Aging 2013;34:2449-2456.
11. Walk A, et al. 38th European Society for Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism Congress. Copenhagen, Denmark; September 17–20, 2016.
12. Vazhappily R, et al. American College of Nutrition 57th Annual Conference. San Diego, CA, USA; November 9–11, 2016.
13. Kuchan MJ, et al. 38th European Society for Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism Congress. Copenhagen, Denmark; September 17–20, 2016.
14. Wassall SR, Stillwell W. Biochim Biophys Acta (BBA)-Biomembranes 2009;1788:24-32.

The opinions, views and positions expressed in this article are those of Dr Matthew J Kuchan.

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