Carotenoid, tocopherol, and retinol concentrations in elderly human brain

J Nutr Health Aging. 2004;8(3):156-62.


Background: Antioxidants, such as tocopherols and carotenoids, have been implicated in the prevention of degenerative diseases. Although correlations have been made between diseases and tissue levels of antioxidants, to date there are no reports of individual carotenoid concentrations in human brain.

Objective: To measure the major carotenoids, tocopherols, and retinol in frontal and occipital regions of human brain.

Design: Ten samples of brain tissue from frontal lobe cortex and occipital cortex of five cadavers were examined. Sections were dissected into gray and white matter, extracted with organic solvents, and analyzed by HPLC.

Results: At least 16 carotenoids, 3 tocopherols, and retinol were present in human brain. Major carotenoids were identified as lutein, zeaxanthin, anhydrolutein, alpha- cryptoxanthin, beta- cryptoxanthin, alpha-carotene, cis- and trans-betacarotene, and cis- and trans-lycopene. Xanthophylls (oxygenated carotenoids) accounted for 66-77% of total carotenoids in all brain regions examined. Similar to neural retina, the ratio of zeaxanthin to lutein was high and these two xanthophylls were significantly correlated (p <0.0001). The tocopherol isomers occurred in the brain over a wider range of mean concentrations (0.11-17.9 nmol/g) than either retinol (87.8 - 163.3 pmol/g) or the identified carotenoids (1.8-23.0 pmol/g).

Conclusions: The frontal cortex, generally vulnerable in Alzheimer's disease, had higher concentrations of all analytes than the occipital cortex which is generally unaffected. Moreover, frontal lobes, but not occipital lobes, exhibited an age-related decline in retinol, total tocopherols, total xanthophylls and total carotenoids. The importance of these differences and the role(s) of these antioxidants in the brain remain to be determined.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / metabolism
  • Alzheimer Disease / metabolism
  • Alzheimer Disease / prevention & control
  • Antioxidants / analysis*
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Cadaver
  • Carotenoids / analysis*
  • Chromatography, High Pressure Liquid
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / chemistry
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Occipital Lobe / chemistry
  • Tocopherols / analysis*
  • Vitamin A / analysis*


  • Antioxidants
  • Vitamin A
  • Carotenoids
  • Tocopherols