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Vitamin A: its many roles—from vision and synaptic plasticity to infant mortality


The recognition that a dietary factor is essential to maintain good and sensitive vision as well as overall health goes back over 3,000 years to the ancient Egyptians. With the discovery of the vitamins at the turn of the twentieth century, fat-soluble vitamin A was soon shown to be the essential factor. In the first half of the twentieth century, the role vitamin A plays in vision, as precursor to the light-sensitive visual pigment molecules in the photoreceptors was elegantly worked out, especially by George Wald and his colleagues. Beginning in the 1960s, with the recognition of the active metabolite of vitamin A, its acid form now called retinoic acid, the roles of vitamin A in maintaining overall health of an organism began to be explored, and this research continues to this day. Receptors activated by retinoic acid, the RARs and RXRs have been shown to regulate gene transcription in a surprisingly wide variety of biological processes from early growth and development to the maintenance of epithelial tissues in many organs, the regulation of the immune system, and even the modulation of synaptic function in the brain involved in mechanisms underlying memory and learning. Therapeutic uses for retinoic acid have been developed, including one for a specific form of leukemia. The story is by no means complete and it is likely more surprises await with regard to this remarkable molecule.

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A modified version of this review was presented to the Medical History Society of Southern Sweden on September 6, 2019.

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Correspondence to John E. Dowling.

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Dowling, J.E. Vitamin A: its many roles—from vision and synaptic plasticity to infant mortality. J Comp Physiol A (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00359-020-01403-z

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  • Night blindness
  • Visual pigments
  • Vitamin A deficiency
  • Retinoic acid
  • Cortical plasticity