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Carotenoids May Affect Brain Function Before Middle Age

Now, your parents aren’t the only ones who think it’s important to eat your veggies: researchers have found that having higher brain levels of the carotenoid lutein, a yellow pigment found especially in green vegetables like kale and spinach, could be related to better cognitive function. The study was published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience and included 60 young to middle-aged adults, 25 to 45 years old, without any known neurologic conditions and with normal or corrected to normal vision (20/20). Researchers first measured carotenoid accumulation in each participant’s retina (the surface of the back of the eye) using a test called macular pigment optical density (MPOD). Retinal carotenoid concentration has been shown to be an indicator of brain lutein levels. Then, while wearing electrodes to monitor their neural activity, the participants performed mental tasks testing their ability to control attention and response. The researchers found that:

  • Both age and retinal carotenoid concentrations were related to cognitive control, but in different ways.
  • Higher retinal carotenoid concentrations were correlated with better neural responses to, and performance on, certain tests of attention control, but not tests of response control.
  • Overall, middle-aged participants had lower peak neural activity during cognitive testing than younger participants, but those with higher retinal carotenoid concentrations had neural response peaks more similar to the younger participants, suggesting an anti-aging effect of brain lutein.

These findings suggest that greater accumulation of carotenoids in the retina, and subsequently concentrations of lutein in the brain, may help protect against the effects of age on brain function between young and middle adulthood. They also suggest that a diet high in leafy greens may benefit your brain much earlier in life than previously thought. While we wait for more research investigating these relationships, your best bet to keep yourself in tip-top shape will come as no surprise—get regular exercise and eat your vegetables.

Source: Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience

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