Astaxanthin, the “Natural Brain Food” That Benefits Cognitive Function

In a previous Research Spotlight, we summarized research showing that astaxanthin—the beta-carotene-like natural pigment that makes salmon red—protects brain cells from damage by toxic free radicals, a biological phenomenon known as “oxidative stress.” Astaxanthin is described in a report published in Forum of Nutrition as “a potential candidate for natural brain food.”

While inhibition of oxidative stress in brains cells is important enough by itself, does the protective effect make any difference in thinking? A placebo-controlled, double-blind study, reported in the Journal of Clinical Biochemistry and Nutrition — a peer-reviewed scientific publication—found evidence that it does. Ninety-six heathy middle-aged and elderly people who experienced the kind of mild forgetfulness that commonly occurs with aging were recruited to participate in this research. The volunteers took astaxanthin, extracted from Haematococcus pluvialis, an algae naturally-rich in astaxanthin, or a placebo (“dummy pill”) daily for 12 weeks. Two modest doses of astaxanthin were used: 12 mg in the “high-dose group” and 6 mg in the “low-dose group.” Tests of cognitive function were administered to all subjects every four weeks. Improvements were seen in both dosage groups at the end of the 12-week study period. Interestingly, the low-dose group raised their scores earlier than the high-dose group in one of the tests:the Groton Maze Learning Test. The sample-size, i.e. the number of subjects, was too small for the data to reach “statistical significance,” nonetheless the report concludes that “the results suggested that astaxanthin-rich Haematococcus pluvialis extract improves cognitive function in the healthy aged individuals.” No side-effects occurred; astaxanthin, like other carotenes, is completely safe as nutritional supplement that can be taken on a daily basis.

High quality natural Astaxanthin from Haematococcus pluvialis, grown under controlled conditions to ensure purity and safety, is available as a supplement in the US.

Liu X, Osawa T. Astaxanthin protects neuronal cells against oxidative damage and is a potent candidate for brain food. Forum Nutr. 2009;61:129-35.

Katagiri M, et al. Effects of astaxanthin-rich Haematococcus pluvialis extract on cognitive function: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. J Clin Biochem Nutr 51(2):102-7.