Alpha Tocotrienols Guard Against Neurodegeneration & Stroke

By: Byron J. Richards, Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist
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Tocotrienol science is on a major roll. In the latest study from scientists at Ohio State University a newly discovered mechanism by which alpha tocotrienol protects brain cells from toxic damage is documented. Not only does this information apply to those at risk for stroke, it is highly relevant to brain health for anyone.

Glutamate-driven nerve activation is a primary way in which your brain accomplishes nerve transmission and function. Think of it as active exercise going on in your brain’s nerve circuits. Just as someone can over-exercise, one of the key problems associated with brain aging is glutamate-driven nerve excess – a situation resulting in what is called excitotoxic damage. This means nerves are running too hot or too inflamed. This can be caused by excess stress, lack of sleep, pollution crossing the blood brain barrier, gut-derived toxins crossing the blood brain barrier, chemicals and pesticides on food, etc. In other words, there are many factors that can hyper excite nerves and drive them into this inflammatory state.

On the other side of the coin are your antioxidant reserves that protect nerves from running too hot. Inside your nerve cells the primary cellular antioxidant is called glutathione (GSH). Maintaining GSH levels is vital to the healthy function and longevity of your nerve cells. All forms of vitamin E, vitamin C, R-alpha lipoic acid, and N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) are key nutrients that help to naturally build up GSH levels inside your nerve cells. When your nerve cells are exposed to excessive and potentially excitotoxic levels of glutamate-driven nerve transmission, then the need for GSH rises higher to act as a buffer so that nerves don’t overheat. Think of GSH like oil in a car engine as far as nerve cells are concerned.

As GSH is spent protecting your nerves, it changes into a different molecule called GSSG (intracellular oxidized glutathione).  If you have plenty of antioxidants on board in your nerves, you are able to re-energize the GSSG and turn it back into GSH.  If you lack this ability then GSSG builds up inside of nerve cells to toxic levels and induces damage. In other words, too much GSSG is a potent neurotoxin.

The Ohio State University research team proved for the very first time that alpha tocotrienol1 stimulates the formation of a protein within nerve cells called MRP1 (multidrug resistance-associated protein 1).  In turn, MRP1 pumps the toxic levels of GSSG out of the nerve cells, thus preventing nerve cell damage. Through a series of cell and animal experiments, including a stroke model, they showed the power of tocotrienols to protect nerves. While this certainly has implications for those at risk for stroke, the basic mechanism is relevant to anyone as it represents a major way to prevent the damaging brain stress that is associated with aging and cognitive decline.

“Here, a natural nutritional product is simultaneously acting on multiple targets to help prevent stroke-induced brain damage. That is a gifted molecule,” said Chandan Sen, professor and vice chair for research in Ohio State’s Department of Surgery and senior author of the study.  “A significant finding in this work is the recognition that MRP1 is a protective factor against stroke. Thanks to tocotrienol, we were able to identify that path.  Essentially what we are showing with mechanistic explanation is that tocotrienol protects neural cells. It is anti-neurodegenerative. This form of vitamin E helped us identify three major checkpoints in stroke-related neurodegeneration that were not known before we began testing tocotrienols against neurodegeneration.”

I should point out that not all tocotrienol products contain much alpha tocotrienol. Many rely on gamma tocotrienol alone, which has been shown to promote healthy cholesterol levels and have anti-cancer properties. Due to the additional antioxidant power of alpha tocotrienol I prefer supplements that contain high levels of both alpha and gamma tocotrienol.

Referenced Studies:
  1. ^ Alpha Tocotrienol Protects Against Nerve Degeneration  Stroke  H.-A. Park, N. Kubicki, S. Gnyawali, Y. C. Chan, S. Roy, S. Khanna, C. K. Sen.

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