Know Your Supplements

Scientists Link Vitamin E Deficiency to Harmful Effects in the Brain

Scientists Link Vitamin E Deficiency to Harmful Effects in the Brain

It has long been known that vitamin E is important for brain health and that diets poor in vitamin E are linked to an increased risk for Alzheimer’s. But exactly how vitamin E contributes to brain health hasn’t been clear.

New research from Dr. Margaret Traber at Oregon State University suggests that vitamin E regulates the brain’s ability to receive and use DHA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid. In the brain, DHA forms DHA-PC, a critical component of neuron membranes. When neurons lose membrane integrity, they can't function properly. Past research suggests that DHA-PC levels are greatly reduced in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Traber and the research team fed zebrafish (common for neuroscience studies) a diet poor in vitamin E from birth. This diet led to 30 percent lower brain levels of DHA-PC and 60 percent lower levels of a molecule called LysoPL, which transports DHA from the liver to the brain. The study, which needs to be validated in human clinical research, suggests that vitamin E is essential in providing the brain with adequate DHA and that the two might interact. Interestingly, high DHA levels were recently reported as critical for B vitamins to protect against brain shrinkage.

Should you consider vitamin E supplements? Although some studies have linked low vitamin E levels to increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, most clinical trials testing vitamin E supplements have failed to show a descreased risk. One explanation for this may be that what we call “vitamin E” is actually an 8-member family of vitamins and that most vitamin E supplements, even those used in clinical trials, only contain one of those family members, called alpha-tocopherol. For now, choosing a diet rich in vitamin E appears safer and more effective to prevent dementia and protect brain health compared with vitamin E supplements. This is especially important since it is estimated that over 90 percent of American adults don’t get enough dietary vitamin E, which is present in foods such as leafy green vegetables, sunflower seeds, and almonds. 

Photo: Seacoast Eat Local

Aaron Carman, PhD, was previously the Assistant Director of Aging and Alzheimer's Prevention at the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation. Dr. Carman received his doctorate in microbiology and molecular genetics from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

Get the latest brain health news: