Lutein has long been known to be selectively accumulated in the macula lutea of the eye where it forms a key component of the macular pigment and thereby may contribute to maintaining good visual health. Science shows that lutein is a strong antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties and interacts with the lipids in cell membranes (2).
Recent studies have shown that lutein is able to cross the blood brain barrier. Vishwanathan et al (3) demonstrated that low levels of lutein in the blood resulted in decreased concentration of carotenoids in the brain of pre-term infants with potential adverse effects on cognition. A recent metabolomics study in infants showed that the levels of lutein in the brain were significantly correlated with levels of neurotransmitters involved with neuronal proliferation and maturation, neurite growth and formation of synapses. At the other end of the age spectrum, lutein was shown to concentrate in the brains of cognitively healthy centenarians from Georgia to such extent that their brains were yellow in color (5)!
While lutein is known to cross the blood brain barrier and accumulate in the brain, it was not known how and where it was accumulated during early development. Hence a new study has examined the pattern of accumulation of lutein in different regions of primate brains (from the age of 1 to 3 months) when supplemented with a formula rich in lutein (1). Lutein was found to accumulate across many regions of the brain in primates, with the highest levels being found in the occipital cortex, which is responsible for interpretation of visual stimuli. High lutein concentrations were also found in the hippocampus, the “seahorse” shaped structure in the center of the brain thought to be important for higher-level memory function. The formula used in the study also contained lycopene and zeaxanthin, but there was no indication of these accumulating in brain tissue.