Vitamin E is an essential antioxidant vitamin and the most abundant fat-soluble antioxidant in the body. Vitamin E helps maintain the integrity of cell membranes, including the brain, and plays a vital role in many physiological processes such as cell signaling. Despite the importance of Vitamin E, more than 90% of Americans do not consume enough Vitamin E as α-tocopherol (the only form maintained in the body) to meet the estimated average requirements.
Vitamin E supplementation is important for brain health in older populations; helping to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease. A recently published study by Kitajima and colleagues illustrates the importance of Vitamin E for brain health earlier in life as well.
Compared to full-term infants, low birth weight infants have higher requirements for Vitamin E, but lower storage, intake and poorer absorption of Vitamin E (Greer, 2005). This means that low birth weight infants have lower Vitamin E levels and much greater risk of Vitamin E deficiency.
In Japan where the study by Kitajima and colleagues was carried out there are recommendations but no clear requirements for Vitamin E supplementation in extremely low birth weight infants (birth weight <1,000g). This enabled a ‘natural experiment’ whereby 259 school-aged children were divided into 3 groups based on the length of Vitamin E supplementation they received 8 years prior as extremely low birth weight infants; no supplementation, daily supplementation for less than 6 months, and daily supplementation for more than 6 months. Children who received Vitamin E supplementation for more than 6 months in infancy had the lowest likelihood of impaired mental development and the greatest performance IQ.
Although there is still much work to be done, it is exciting that something as “simple” as Vitamin E could help the long-term mental development of vulnerable infants.
Kitajima H, Kanazawa T, Mori R, Hirano S, Ogihara T, Fujimura M. Long-term alpha-Tocopherol supplements may improve mental development in extremely low birth weight infants. Acta Paediatr. Epub ahead of print Nov 8 2014. doi: 10.1111/apa.12854
Greer FR, Vitamin A, E, and K In: Tsang RC, Uauy R, Koletzko B, Zlotkin SH (eds). Nutrition of the Preterm Infant: Scientific Basis and Practical Guidelines 2nd edn. Digital Educational Publishing: Cincinnati, Ohio, 2005, pp 141–173
Henriksen C, Helland IB, Ronnestad A, Gronn M, Iverson PO, Drevon CA. Fat-soluble vitamins in breast-fed preterm and term infants. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2006;60:756-62.
Chan DK, Lim MS, Choo SH, Tan IK. Vitamin E status of infants at birth. J Perinat Med. 1999;27:395-8.