Diet-based xanthophylls (zeaxanthin and lutein) are conditionally essential polar carotenoids preferentially accreted in high concentrations (1 mM) to the central retina, where they have the capacity to impart unique physiologically significant biophysical biochemical properties implicated in cell function, rescue, and survival. Macular xanthophylls interact with membrane-bound proteins and lipids to absorb/attenuate light energy, modulate oxidative stress and redox balance, and influence signal transduction cascades implicated in the pathophysiology of age-related macular degeneration. There is exclusive transport, sequestration, and appreciable bioamplification of macular xanthophylls from the circulating carotenoid pool to the retina and within the retina to regions required for high-resolution sensory processing. The distribution of diet-based macular xanthophylls and the lutein metabolite meso-zeaxanthin varies considerably by retinal eccentricity. Zeaxanthin concentrations are 2.5-fold higher than lutein in the cone-dense central fovea. This is an ~20-fold increase in the molar ratio relative to eccentric retinal regions with biochemically detectable macular xanthophylls. In this review, we discuss how the differences in the specific properties of lutein and zeaxanthin could help explain the preferential accumulation of zeaxanthin in the most vulnerable region of the macula.
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