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Handb Clin Neurol. 2010;95:435-44. doi: 10.1016/S0072-9752(08)02129-5.

Chapter 29: historical aspects of the major neurological vitamin deficiency disorders: overview and fat-soluble vitamin A.

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Department of Neurology, Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Tomah, WI 54660, USA.


The vitamine doctrine: Although diseases resulting from vitamin deficiencies have been known for millennia, such disorders were generally attributed to toxic or infectious causes until the "vitamin doctrine" was developed in the early 20th century. In the late-19th century, a physiologically complete diet was believed to require only sufficient proteins, carbohydrates, fats, inorganic salts, and water. From 1880-1912, Lunin, Pekelharing, and Hopkins found that animals fed purified mixtures of known food components failed to grow or even lost weight and died, unless the diet was supplemented with small amounts of milk, suggesting that "accessory food factors" are required in trace amounts for normal growth. By this time, Funk suggested that deficiencies of trace dietary factors, which he labeled "vitamines" on the mistaken notion that they were "vital amines," were responsible for such diseases as beriberi, scurvy, rickets, and pellagra. Vitamin A deficiency eye disease: Night blindness was recognized by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, and many authorities from Galen onward advocated liver as a curative. Outbreaks of night blindness were linked to nutritional causes in the 18th and 19th centuries by von Bergen, Schwarz, and others. Corneal ulceration was reported in 1817 by Magendie among vitamin A-deficient dogs fed for several weeks on a diet limited to sugar and water, although he erroneously attributed this to a deficiency of dietary nitrogen (i.e. protein). Subsequently, corneal epithelial defects, often in association with night blindness, were recognized in malnourished individuals subsisting on diets now recognizable as deficient in vitamin A by Budd, Livingstone, von Hubbenet, Bitot, Mori, Ishihari, and others. During World War I, Bloch conducted a controlled clinical trial of different diets among malnourished Danish children with night blindness and keratomalacia and concluded that whole milk, butter, and cod-liver oil contain a fat-soluble substance that protects against xerophthalmia. Early retinal photochemistry: In the 1870s, Boll found that light causes bleaching of the retinal pigment, and suggested that the outer segments of the rods contain a substance that conveys an impression of light to the brain by a photochemical process. Shortly thereafter, Kühne demonstrated that the bleaching process depends upon light, and was reversible if the retinal pigment epithelium was intact. Kühne proposed an "optochemical hypothesis," a prescient concept of photochemical transduction, attributing vision to a photochemical change in visual purple (rhodopsin) with resulting chemical products stimulating the visual cells and thereby conveying a visual image. Vitamin A: In 1913, Ishihara proposed that a "fatty substance" in blood is necessary for synthesis of both rhodopsin and the surface layer of the cornea, and that night blindness and keratomalacia develop when this substance is deficient. That year McCollum and Davis (and almost simultaneously Mendel and Osborne) discovered a fat-soluble accessory food factor (later called "fat-soluble A") distinct from the water-soluble anti-beriberi factor (later called "fat-soluble B"). By 1922 McCollum and colleagues distinguished two vitamins within the fat-soluble fraction, later named vitamins A and D. In 1925 Fridericia and Holm directly linked vitamin A to night blindness in animal experiments using rats, and in 1929 Holm demonstrated the presence of vitamin A in retinal tissue. In the 1930s, Moore, Karrer, Wald, and others established the provitamin role of beta-carotene. Karrer and colleagues isolated beta-carotene (the main dietary precursor of vitamin A) and retinol (vitamin A), and determined their chemical structures. In 1947, Isler and colleagues completed the full chemical synthesis of vitamin A. Modern retinal photochemistry: Beginning in the 1930s, Wald and colleagues greatly elaborated the photochemistry of vision, with the discovery of the visual cycle of vitamin A, demonstration that rhodopsin is decomposed by light into retinal (the aldehyde form of vitamin A) and a protein (opsin), elaboration of the enzymatic conversions of various elements in the rhodopsin system, and discovery that the rhodopsin system is dependent on a photoisomerization of retinal. In 1942, Hecht and colleagues demonstrated that a single photon could trigger excitation in a rod. In 1965, Wald suggested that a large chemical amplification was necessary for this degree of light sensitivity, likely by a cascade of enzymatic reactions. Later studies elaborated this cascade and found that an intermediary in the photoisomerization of retinal interacts with transducin, a G-protein, to activate phosphodiesterases that control cyclic GMP levels, which in turn modulate the release of neurotransmitter from the rod cell. Public health: Although the availability of vitamin A through food fortification and medicinal supplements virtually eliminated ocular vitamin A deficiency from developed countries by the second half of the 20th century, vitamin A deficiency remains a serious problem in developing countries as indicated by global surveys beginning in the 1960s. Millions of children were shown to be vitamin A deficient, with resultant blindness, increased susceptibility to infection, and increased childhood mortality. Beginning in the 1960s, intervention trials showed that vitamin A deficiency disorders could be prevented in developing countries with periodic vitamin A dosing, and in the 1980s and 1990s, large randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials demonstrated the marked efficacy of vitamin A supplementation in reducing childhood mortality.

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