Although a large variety of pharmaceutical therapies for treating disease have been developed in recent years, there has been little progress in disease prevention. In particular, the protection of neural tissue is essential, because it is hardly regenerated. The use of nutraceuticals for maintaining the health has been supported by several clinical studies, including cross-sectional and interventional studies for age-related macular disease. However, mechanistic evidence for their effects at the molecular level has been very limited. In this review, we focus on lutein, which is a xanthophyll type of carotenoid. Lutein is not synthesized in mammals, and must be obtained from the diet. It is delivered to the retina, and in humans, it is concentrated in the macula. Here, we describe the neuroprotective effects of lutein and their underlying molecular mechanisms in animal models of vision-threatening diseases, such as innate retinal inflammation, diabetic retinopathy, and light-induced retinal degeneration. In lutein-treated mouse ocular disease models, oxidative stress in the retina is reduced, and its downstream pathological signals are inhibited. Furthermore, degradation of the functional proteins, rhodopsin (a visual substance) and synaptophysin (a synaptic vesicle protein also influenced in other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease), the depletion of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and DNA damage are prevented by lutein, which preserves visual function. We discuss the possibility of using lutein, an antioxidant, as a neuroprotective treatment for humans.
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