Vitamin E may be vital for healthy brain, nervous system development during pregnancy


Scientists say their ‘amazing’ study of zebrafish shows ‘the brain is absolutely physically distorted by not having enough vitamin E.’


CORVALLIS, Ore. — Doctors constantly warn expecting mothers to avoid things like drinking and smoking during their pregnancies. A new study is now urging these women to add something to their diets: vitamin E. Researchers from Oregon State University say this vitamin plays an important role in the development of embryos, specifically helping to form the brain and nervous system.

Their study examines zebrafish, a small freshwater species which goes from an egg to swimming in just five days. Despite being a fish, they are extremely similar to humans on a molecular, genetic, and cellular level. This makes studies on zebrafish extremely relevant for medical research and very valuable to scientists examining vertebrates, species with backbones.

The OSU study reveals vitamin E-deficient zebrafish produce embryos which have both malformed brains and nervous systems. Taking pictures of the embryo development, the team specifically looked at where the brain forms. Scientists say these fish only survive for 24 hours before the deficiency becomes too overwhelming.

“This is totally amazing – the brain is absolutely physically distorted by not having enough vitamin E,” reports Professor Maret Traber in a university release. “What we know is the vitamin E-deficient embryos lived to 24 hours and then started dying off. At six hours there was no difference, by 12 hours you see the differences but they weren’t killing the animals, and at 24 hours there were dramatic changes that were about to cause the tipping point of total catastrophe.”

Where does vitamin E fit in?

Traber, who has been studying the micronutrient for 30 years, says an embryo develops a brain and neural tube early on. This helps to supply nerves (innervate) to all the organs. Without enough vitamin E however, the fish embryos show defects in both the neural tube and brain.

“They were kind of like folic acid-deficient neural tube defects, and now we have pictures to show the neural tube defects and brain defects and that vitamin E is right on the closing edges of the cells that are forming the brain,” Traber explains.

In healthy organisms, neural crest cells are responsible for creating facial bones and cartilage. They also innervate the body, building a vertebrate’s peripheral nervous system.

“Acting as stem cells, the crest cells are important for the brain and spinal cord and also go on to be the cells of about 10 different organ systems including the heart and liver,” the OSU professor adds. “By having those cells get into trouble with vitamin E deficiency, basically the entire embryo formation is dysregulated. It is no wonder we see embryo death with vitamin E deficiency.”

Traber compares vitamin E’s importance to the children’s game KerPlunk, where players pull straws out of a tube which are holding up a pile of marbles. If someone pulls out the wrong straw, all the marbles will spill out. Removing vitamin E is like pulling out the wrong straw, making eggs incapable of properly developing a brain and nerves.

Food for thought

Vitamin E is an alpha-tocopherol which is most often a part of foods like olive oil. Hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, and avocados also have high levels of vitamin E. Alpha-tocopherol is commonly linked to vitamin E and is found in supplements and foods common to a European diet.

“Plants make eight different forms of vitamin E, and you absorb them all, but the liver only puts alpha-tocopherol back into the bloodstream,” Traber explains. “All of the other forms are metabolized and excreted. I’ve been concerned about women and pregnancy because of reports that women with low vitamin E in their plasma have increased risk of miscarriage.”

The study appears in Scientific Reports.

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