Lutein: A Bright Idea for Brain Health

Because the eye is an extension of the nervous system, it’s not surprising that lutein and zeaxanthin would also be important to our brain health. Not only is lutein the predominant carotenoid in our brains both early and late in life,1,2 but our macular pigment density is also related to the level of cognitive function in adults.3 Furthermore, studies have shown that lutein supplementation in adults may improve cognitive function.4

Lutein protects the brain during particularly vulnerable periods (such as in infancy, when the retina and brain are changing dramatically, and aging). The brain, like the eye, is particularly vulnerable to oxidation and lutein can inhibit the formation of substances created by oxidation called free radicals.5 This is particularly important for the developing brain during pregnancy – a time when the brain is particularly vulnerable to oxidation.

As in the eye, lutein may help the neurons of the brain talk with one another.6

Lutein and Infant Brain Development

All signs point to the importance of lutein and zeaxanthin for the optimal development of babies’ brains. For example, when various carotenoids are measured in infant brains, lutein predominates.7 This is despite the fact that beta-carotene, not lutein, is the carotenoid most prevalent in infants’ diets.8 That suggests that infants’ brains preferentially absorb lutein versus other carotenoids. In addition, there is twice the amount of lutein in the infant brain versus the adult brain, making it likely that lutein plays a role in early brain development. Also, breast milk and colostrum are rich in lutein when the mother’s diet is rich in lutein, again signaling a need for lutein in infants’ developing brains.

Lutein and Cognitive Function in Adults

Research has shown a positive correlation between macular pigment density and better cognitive function in healthy older adults.9 In one study, women were given supplements containing 1) lutein alone, 2) the omega-3 fatty acid DHA alone, 3) both lutein and omega-3 DHA in combination or 4) a placebo. The women who received one or both of the nutrients had improvements in verbal fluency, memory and rate of learning.10


1 Vishwanathan R, Kuchan, Matthew, Johnson EJ. Lutein is the predominate carotenoid in infant brain. Krakow, Poland; 2011 2 J Aging Res. 2013(Article ID 951786):1–13
3 Age Ageing. 2014 Mar;43(2):271-5
4 Nutr Neurosci. 2008 Apr;11(2):75–83
5 Mol Aspects Med. 2005 Dec;26(6):459–516
6 BioFactors Oxf Engl. 2001;15(2-4):95–8
7 Korean J Nutr. 34:754–61
8 NHANES, 1999
9 J Aging Res. 2013
10 Nutr Neurosci. 2008 Apr;11(2):75–83