Vitamin B6 and the brain

A candidate drug that stops vitamin B6 being broken down in mouse brain cells could help to reveal how this vitamin supports learning and memory.

7,8-dihydroxyflavone (purple) binds to and inhibits an enzyme called pyridoxal phosphatase (green), preventing breakdown of bioactive vitamin B6. Image credit: Brenner, Zink, Witzinger et al. (CC BY 4.0).

Vitamin B6 is an important nutrient for optimal brain function, with deficiencies linked to impaired memory, learning and mood in various mental disorders. In older people, vitamin B6 deficiency is also associated with declining memory and dementia. Although this has been known for years, the precise role of vitamin B6 in these disorders and whether supplements can be used to treat or prevent them remained unclear.

This is partly because vitamin B6 is actually an umbrella term for a small number of very similar and interchangeable molecules. Only one of these is ‘bioactive’, meaning it has a biological role in cells. However, therapeutic strategies aimed at increasing only the bioactive form of vitamin B6 are lacking.

Previous work showed that disrupting the gene for an enzyme called pyridoxal phosphatase, which breaks down vitamin B6, improves memory and learning in mice. To investigate whether these effects could be mimicked by drug-like compounds, Brenner, Zink, Witzinger et al. used several biochemical and structural biology approaches to search for molecules that bind to and inhibit pyridoxal phosphatase.

The experiments showed that a molecule called 7,8-dihydroxyflavone – which was previously found to improve memory and learning in laboratory animals with brain disorders – binds to pyridoxal phosphatase and inhibits its activity. This led to increased bioactive vitamin B6 levels in mouse brain cells involved in memory and learning.

The findings of Brenner et al. suggest that inhibiting pyridoxal phosphatase to increase vitamin B6 levels in the brain could be used together with supplements. The identification of 7,8-dihydroxyflavone as a promising candidate drug is a first step in the discovery of more efficient pyridoxal phosphatase inhibitors. These will be useful experimental tools to directly study whether increasing the levels of bioactive vitamin B6 in the brain may help those with mental health conditions associated with impaired memory, learning and mood.