Palm Oil Protects Your Brain

Study shows tocotrienols in palm oil protect brain cells

In a study published in the prestigious Journal of Biological Chemistry (April 2000), researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that tocotrienols, especially alpha-tocotrienol, protects glutamate-induced death of neuronal cells (brain cells). This study also provided the first evidence describing the molecular basis of tocotrienol action.  Tocotrienols are a special, super potent form of vitamin E found in palm oil.

There are two types of vitamin E. Tocopherol is the type we are most familiar with. Tocotrienol is the less common form that is found in abundance in palm oil. Each form of vitamin E has four subgroups designated by alpha, beta, gamma, and delta. Alpha-tocopherol is the most common form of vitamin E. It is the form we see in vitamin supplements and fortified foods. Alpha-tocotrienol is the most abundant form of vitamin E in palm oil. Researchers have found that alpha-tocotrienol from palm oil has up to 60 times the antioxidant activity as alpha-tocopherol.

Oxidative damage due to free radicals or reactive oxygen species has been implicated in age-related neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s. In the pathogenesis of these diseases, oxidative damage may accumulate over a period of years, leading to massive neuronal loss. A major contributor to pathologic cell death within the nervous system is glutamate toxicity and appears to be mediated by reactive oxygen species. The induction of oxidative stress by excitatory amino acid such as glutamate has been demonstrated to be the primary cause of death of certain types of neuronal cells. Glutamate is used by researchers to induce neurological damage in lab studies. We get glutamate in our diet from monosodium glutamate (MSG), “natural flavoring” added to foods, and soy products, to mention a few.

In the study it was found that at low concentrations of tocotrienols were more effective than alpha-tocopherol (the common form of vitamin E) in preventing glutamate-induced brain cell death. At higher concentrations, the glutamate-induced neuronal cells not only recovered after 6 hours of glutamate treatment, the tocotrienols, and especially alpha-tocotrienol, provided complete protection against further loss of cell viability.

It was also interesting to note that among the tocotrienols (alpha and gamma fractions), the alpha-tocotrienol was more effective than gamma-tocotrienol in protecting the neuronal cells.

The researchers went on to study the protective effect of the free-form and esterified-form of alpha-tocotrienol in glutamate-induced death of neuronal cells. It was found that the free-form was preferentially absorbed by the cells and due to this preferential uptake of the free-form tocotrienol, it confers higher protection against glutamate-induced death of brain cells.

In order to explain the neuroprotective property of tocotrienols, the researchers looked at the involvement of signal transduction pathways in the glutamate-induced cell death. Studies have shown that inhibitors of protein-tyrosine kinase activity completely prevented glutamate-induced cell death. It was evident from the study that tocotrienols inhibited the activation of c-Src tyrosine kinase activity. Inhibition of c-Src kinase activity has significant implications and may explain other protective properties of tocotrienols. For example, studies have shown that many intracellular pathways can be stimulated upon Src activation and a variety of cellular consequences can result, including morphological and cell proliferation. One of them is human breast cancer. Increased in Src tyrosine kinase activity has been implicated in the progression of breast cancer. Mammary tumors and human skin tumors possess elevated c-Src tyrosine kinase activity. Because of the key involvement of Src kinase activity in various oncogenesis, inhibitors of these kinases are being studied as potential candidates for anti-cancer drugs. Tocotrienols with their ability to inhibit the activation of Src kinase activity holds potential as natural complimentary phytonutrient in preventing these cancers. However, more studies need to be carried out to confirm this effect.

In summary, this enlightening study demonstrated that naturally occurring tocotrienols especially alpha-tocotrienol may be an effective natural phytonutrient in preventing age-related neurodegenerative disease and certain type of c-Src kinase-mediated cancers. Palm oil has the highest level of alpha-tocotrienol. Even though the study was carried out in cultured neuronal cells, it nevertheless showed promising results in the protection of these cells.

There are several possible interpretations of this study. Some scientists think that we need actual human trials to confirm the effect of tocotrienols in preventing age-related neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Previous studies have shown that the ordinary form of vitamin E (tocopherols) confer protection against Alzheimer’s disease. Tocotrienol from palm oil has shown to be even better at protecting neuronal cells. While it is important to get clinical studies, it is unreasonable for those people who could benefit, to wait for 5 or 10 years for the results of studies, when they can do something right now. The evidence from this study and many other studies is good enough to start using palm oil to take advantage of its protective tocotrienols. There is no compelling reason not to. 

For further information and studies showing the neuroprotective and anticancer effects of palm oil read The Palm Oil Miracle by Dr. Bruce Fife, available at or

This website is for informational purposes only, and is educational in nature. Statements made here have not been evaluated by the FDA. Nothing stated on this website is intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Copyright © Coconut Research Center, 2004