Protection for brain cells

My colleague Tan Choe Choe interviews researchers who found palm oil vitamin E is able to to reduce risk of stroke or damage caused by it.



VITAMIN E extracted from palm oil has been proven to be able to stop human brain cells from dying in the event of a stroke, according to a recently concluded study by a team of researchers from Universiti Sains Malaysia.

It is the first clinical trial of its kind on humans, testing the ability and efficacy of tocotrienols, a variant of vitamin E found in palm oil, in protecting brain cells, said USM Professor Yuen Kah Hay, who leads the team.

The results of this study have far-reaching implications -- among them lowering the risk of stroke or reducing the damage it wreaks in the event of an attack.

The vitamin E family is made up of four variants of tocopherols and another four called tocotrienols.

Malaysian researchers have been studying palm tocotrienols since the 1980s and the Malaysian Palm Oil Board was the first in the world to discover that the lesser known vitamin E family member, the tocotrienols, is a far more potent anti-oxidant than tocopherols.

Tocopherols are sourced from oilseeds such as soya oil, canola and sunflower, while tocotrienols are only found in abundance in palm oil and rice bran oil.

Preliminary research proves tocotrienols can heal body cells and trigger cancerous ones to kill themselves. In a research published in 2000, a group of researchers in Ohio State University in the United States found that tocotrienols are neuroprotective, that is, able to protect brain cells, at low concentrations, what scientists term nano-molar levels.

"The American study showed that tocotrienols have neuroprotective effects on cultured brain cells. They found that tocotrienols are involved in cell-signalling.

They work by suppressing two key signals in the cells to prevent cells from dying," Yuen told the New Sunday Times.

After experimenting on genetically modified mice, which are prone to stroke, the same group then published in 2005 its results, which showed that tocotrienols could minimise cell damage.

In view of such promising results, Yuen and his team here started clinical trial on 200 human volunteers with white matter lesions (WML) or oxygen-starved brain cells in January 2008. It was completed in November 2011 and the results are now being finalised before publication.

Brain scans were conducted on the volunteers before and after the administration of the tocotrienol supplements and placebo in a randomised, double-blind study. "The results are amazing," said Yuen, who conducted the study with a team of 10 researchers and postgraduate students. Chief among his collaborators is Prof Dr Ibrahim Lutfi Shuaib, a radiologist and senior consultant at the Institute of Advanced Medical and Dental Sciences.

After one year, those on tocotrienol supplements showed only little increase in the amount of WMLs, compared with the group on placebo, whose increase was about seven times more.

By the second year, the placebo group continued to show further increases in the volume of lesions, while those on tocotrienols showed a decrease. "The volume of lesions in the group taking tocotrienols was lower than the baseline, the starting point. We are puzzled and amazed by this development."

It is hard to conclude precisely what this means now without further investigation, so Yuen has been growing brain cells in the laboratory for the past three months to try to understand the phenomenon.

Meanwhile, in a study on stroke-induced dogs published by researchers at Ohio State University last year, similar results were found. More interestingly, they also found that tocotrienols somehow increased the blood flow to stroke-stricken areas because there was an increased expression of the arteriogenesis genes, which enabled the reconstruction of blood vessels.

"The evidence we have now suggests that if people take it as a neuroprotective supplement, it can prevent brain cells from dying in the event of a stroke and also stimulate the reconstruction of blood vessels after," said Yuen.

From these positive indications of the neuroprotective capabilities in tocotrienols, Yuen, with funding from the Performance Management and Delivery Unit (Pemandu) that was announced last November, is embarking on a similar study, this time on diabetic patients.

"Diabetics are prone to nerve degeneration. They lose sensations in their peripheral nervous system, which affects things like the limbs, as opposed to the central nervous system in the brain for stroke patients, as the illness progresses. It's a condition called peripheral neuropathy. So we want to see now whether tocotrienols have the ability to slow down or prevent this degeneration in diabetics," said Yuen.

The study will be conducted on 300 volunteers and is expected to take up to three years, with collaboration from doctors led by Dr Irene Looi (neurologist) from the Clinical Research Centre of Seberang Jaya Hospital and a few community health centres in Butterworth.

Malaysia is the world's biggest tocotrienol producer and exporter. A kilogramme of palm oil vitamin E retails at US$500 (RM1,500). Annually, Malaysia exports some RM50 million worth of palm oil health supplements to Europe, the US, Canada and Japan.

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