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Scientists from Oregon State University have recently studied zebrafish to better understand how the brain works. The researchers chose zebrafish because they have many genes in common with human beings.

In this recent study, the fish were fed a diet without vitamin E for 9 months. At the end of the study period, the researchers found that they had around 30% less of an essential part of the brain cell membrane called DHA-PC – a form of the omega 3 fatty acid DHA.

The results also showed that the vitamin E deficient fish had higher levels of hydroxyl-DHA-PC, which can form following free radical exposure. In addition, these fish had lower levels of lysophospholipids – compounds that join with vitamin E to transport DHA into the brain.  

Lead researcher Dr Maret Traber commented on the study findings, “This research showed that vitamin E is needed to prevent a dramatic loss of a critically important molecule in the brain, and helps explain why vitamin E is needed for brain health. You can’t build a house without the necessary materials. In a sense, if vitamin E is inadequate, we’re cutting by more than half the amount of materials with which we can build and maintain the brain.”

Vitamin E is actually not a single nutrient but a family of eight different molecules. There are four tocopherols (alpha, beta, gamma and delta) and four tocotrienols (alpha, beta, gamma and delta). Most of the research into vitamin E has looked at its importance for cardiovascular health, eye health and cancer prevention. Now this new study has highlighted its benefits for brain health, a significant development, especially considering the ageing population. Regular assessment of vitamin E status alongside education into optimizing intakes of this nutrient should perhaps be strongly considered as part of routine healthcare.

1. Choi, J, Leonard SW et al. Novel function of vitamin E in regulation of zebrafish (Danio rerio) brain lysophospholipids discovered using lipidomics.  Journal of Lipid Research.  Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1194/jlr.M058941

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