Behind the eyes: the role of lutein in brain health
- Lutein is well known for its role in eye health, but emerging science has also highlighted its benefits for the brain.
- Understanding how lutein can impact on cognitive health is vital in ensuring the population is receiving enough of the carotenoid.
- Leafy green vegetables and egg yolks are good sources of lutein. Alternatively, supplementation offers a simple and effective option for increasing intake to support a healthy brain throughout a person’s lifetime.
The 18th International Carotenoids Society (ICS) Symposium took place in Lucerne, Switzerland, hosting over 80 talks to almost 300 attendees. One topic of particular interest was the role of macular carotenoids, particularly lutein, in brain health. As an important antioxidant deposited, along with zeaxanthin, in the eye, the benefits of lutein in eye health are well documented. However, there is also a large pool of research that highlights potential benefits for the brain.
Keeping a young mind with lifelong lutein intake
With an increasingly aging population, ensuring a healthy brain is maintained well into later life is more important than ever before. Many scientific studies have aimed to understand the most effective methods of looking after the brain, from development in early years to protection from age-related diseases. Understanding how lutein can impact on cognitive health is vital in ensuring the population is receiving enough of the carotenoid.
Research has suggested that early intervention, with increased lutein intake in early and middle adulthood, may be key to supporting cognitive health.1 In support of this, many studies, including a variety presented at the ICS symposium, also support the benefits of lutein intake from early on in life. For example, infant formula with supplemental carotenoids has been shown to be more effective than standard formula in achieving the cognitive benefits offered by breastmilk, and higher lutein and zeaxanthin intake in breastmilk has been linked to faster, improved neural development and connectivity.23 Additionally, research has found macular carotenoid supplementation, even in young, healthy individuals, may result in significant improvements in visual processing speed.4
Looking for lutein
So, how can people increase their lutein intake? The human body cannot naturally produce lutein on its own, so lutein needs to be obtained from external sources. Certain vegetables, particularly leafy greens and egg yolks, are a good source of lutein - so a diet high in spinach and kale, for example, would increase lutein intake. However, this may not be possible (or palatable) to many people.
For those looking for alternative sources of lutein to support their brain, fortified foods and supplementation offer convenient, cost-effective and efficient methods of controlling and increasing intake. Recent research has found that doctors and GPs are far more likely to recommend supplementation to boost immune systems or keep bones healthy, rather than for specific health concerns, such as cognitive performance.5 Increased education on, and awareness of, lutein’s role in brain health may therefore lead to higher intakes across the globe, and the dietary supplement industry can help to provide consumers with simple solutions for maintaining a healthy brain across their lifetime.
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 M. Neuringer et al ‘Functional connectivity of cerebral cortical networks in monkey infants fed breast milk or formulas with low or high carotenoid content’, presented at the 18th ICS Symposium 2017.