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Can Xanthophyll-Membrane Interactions Explain Their Selective Presence in the Retina and Brain? Foods 2016 Jan 12;5(1)



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Epidemiological studies demonstrate that a high dietary intake of carotenoids may offer protection against age-related macular degeneration, cancer and cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases. Humans cannot synthesize carotenoids and depend on their dietary intake. Major carotenoids that have been found in human plasma can be divided into two groups, carotenes (nonpolar molecules, such as β-carotene, α-carotene or lycopene) and xanthophylls (polar carotenoids that include an oxygen atom in their structure, such as lutein, zeaxanthin and β-cryptoxanthin). Only two dietary carotenoids, namely lutein and zeaxanthin (macular xanthophylls), are selectively accumulated in the human retina. A third carotenoid, meso-zeaxanthin, is formed directly in the human retina from lutein. Additionally, xanthophylls account for about 70% of total carotenoids in all brain regions. Some specific properties of these polar carotenoids must explain why they, among other available carotenoids, were selected during evolution to protect the retina and brain. It is also likely that the selective uptake and deposition of macular xanthophylls in the retina and brain are enhanced by specific xanthophyll-binding proteins. We hypothesize that the high membrane solubility and preferential transmembrane orientation of macular xanthophylls distinguish them from other dietary carotenoids, enhance their chemical and physical stability in retina and brain membranes and maximize their protective action in these organs. Most importantly, xanthophylls are selectively concentrated in the most vulnerable regions of lipid bilayer membranes enriched in polyunsaturated lipids. This localization is ideal if macular xanthophylls are to act as lipid-soluble antioxidants, which is the most accepted mechanism through which lutein and zeaxanthin protect neural tissue against degenerative diseases.

Author List

Widomska J, Zareba M, Subczynski WK


Witold K. Subczynski PhD Professor in the Biophysics department at Medical College of Wisconsin