Research from the University of Aberdeen has revealed “first evidence” that the brain controls vitamin balance in the body, noting that the finding could potentially “have implications for diagnosis and treatment of vitamin-related diseases from anaemia to infertility to blindness”.
The research challenges previously-held beliefs that that vitamin balance is controlled by other organs in the body including the liver and kidneys.
For the purposes of the study, scientists looked at vitamin A and how the brain reacts to it. Previous research has highlighted that the body cannot make vitamin A by itself, and the vitamin is stored in the liver; but “until now it was not known how it was maintained in the body”.
In an initial study on rats, the researchers found that the hypothalamus region of the brain “may be responsible” for controlling vitamin A levels, adding that “there may be top-down control of vitamin A function around the body”. When very small amounts of vitamin A were in applied directly to the hypothalamus of the rat brain, this “impacted the amount of vitamin A in the storage area of the liver and the amount of the vitamin distributed to cells of the body via the blood”. Authors suggest that this implies the presence of a vitamin A “sensor system” in the hypothalamus that controls distribution.
Dr Peter Ikhianosimhe Imoesi, one of the researchers on the project, commented: “What we found is radically new. No one before has even suggested that the brain may control vitamin balance in the body… Our results suggest that vitamin A imbalance may not be simply due to irregular intake, but that an abnormality in hypothalamic function due to disease or inflammation may lead to inadequate supply of vitamin A to the body.”
This could mean that diseases affecting the hypothalamus “may have some of their symptoms due to disordered vitamin A levels”, Dr Imosei added, and “measurement of vitamin A levels in the blood may provide a guide to whether the hypothalamus is functioning normally.”
The university notes that vitamin A deficiency can lead to “weakening of the immune system as well as visual and skin problems”, and excess vitamin A “can lead to problems again with vision and the skin, as well as swelling of the brain.”
Dr Imoesi concluded: “Worldwide an estimated 250 million people are marginally deficient of vitamin A while 140 million pre-school children and around 7.2 million pregnant women are believed to be vitamin A deficient. Normal hypothalamic function may be necessary to balance vitamin A and act to reduce such harmful effects.”
Other research being conducted at UK universities includes work to investigate the root causes of cancer and the advancements of traditional treatment at the University of Glasgow.
Elsewhere, University Hospitals Plymouth has launched a research initiative protecting babies from RSV, offering a new antibody treatment to babies as part of the HARMONIE study.