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Proc Nutr Soc. 2001 May;60(2):171-8.

Nutritional factors and visual function in premature infants.

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  • 1Northern Ireland Centre for Diet and Health, University of Ulster, Coleraine, UK.


Approximately 5-7% of all infants are born prematurely, and birth before 37 weeks is the most common cause of neonatal mortality, morbidity and long-term disability. Premature infants are poorly equipped for life outside the womb, and oxidant stress has been implicated in the aetiology of visual impairment in these infants, who are often exposed to increased O2 concentrations and high light intensity in neonatal units. The carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which give the macular area of the eye its yellow colour, are located in the retinal pigment epithelium of the eye, and are believed to play a role in protecting it against oxidative and light damage. The macular pigments are of dietary origin, and green leafy vegetables are the primary source of lutein and zeaxanthin. Lutein is one of the five most common carotenoids found in the diet. There is current interest in the macular pigment in relation to age-related macular degeneration, but these pigments may also have a protective role in the retinal pigment epithelium of the newborn infant. Little information is available on blood lutein and zeaxanthin levels in neonates. Levels of lutein in human milk are two to three times higher than those of beta-carotene, whereas their concentrations in the mothers' blood are approximately the same. Human milk is the main dietary source of lutein and zeaxanthin for infants until weaning occurs. The biochemical mechanisms which mediate the transport of the macular carotenoids into the eye are not known, but tubulin has been identified as the major carotenoid-binding protein, and may play a role in the physiology of the macula.

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