The Role of Vitamin A in the Pathogenesis of Psychiatric Disorders

A group of researchers have investigated the role of vitamin A in the pathogenesis of psychiatric disorders.

According to Professor Murray Cairns of the University of Newcastle and Hunter Medical Research Institute, individuals suffering from schizophrenia and other mental illnesses are believed to have altered neuronal connectivity in their brains.

Our previous research suggests this could be to do with vitamin A levels or retinol levels, which are known to play an important role in the differentiation, maturation, and synaptic function of brain cells. Our new study by William Reay and colleagues combined the summary statistics from thousands of individual genomes to find out what genetic factors regulate retinol levels in blood. We essentially matched retinol levels with variation in genes to give us a better understanding of the genes involved in retinol absorption and transport in the blood.”

Murray Cairns, Professor, Hunter Medical Research Institute

Professor Cairns says the true value of this research lies in better understanding the role of retinol in a variety of complex health conditions, rather than just understanding the genetic architecture of human retinol levels.

Cairns added, “We can use the genetic variation that influences retinol as a proxy for levels of the vitamin in large genetic studies in millions of individuals about more than 17,000 traits. This is a powerful method compared to observational studies because it’s not confounded by correlation or reverse causation.”

Using this approach, we can support the significance of retinol in inflammation, plasma lipids, adiposity, vision, microbiome, brain structure/connectivity, asthma, COPD, and several other traits. This is significant because we use synthetic retinoids as drugs and potentially guide their application through a genetically informed precision medicine approach. For example, people with autoimmune diseases have low levels of retinol,” noted Cairns.

Cairns added, “There’s a lot more work that needs to be done to fully understand how retinol impacts human health but we do know that it is very important and potent. Like salt and sugar, we need enough of this vitamin but if we have too much or too little, it can cause all sorts of problems.”

Orange and green plants, as well as meat, are good sources of fat-soluble vitamin A. The liver converts beta-carotene, which is found in plants, into retinol.

Pregnant women and women of childbearing age should exercise caution when using high-dose supplements and retinoid medications because an excessive amount of vitamin A can also be harmful to the developing fetus. It should always be taken moderately and by medical advice.

Retinol is hugely important for many aspects of our development; brain, immune system, skin, and vision. It’s really important to know what it does and how it can be used more effectively to improve human health.”

Murray Cairns, Professor, Hunter Medical Research Institute

Source:
Journal reference:

Reay, R. W., et al. (2024) Genetic influences on circulating retinol and its relationship to human health. Nature Communications. doi.org/10.1038/s41467-024-45779-x

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