Study: Iron accumulation may up Alzheimer's risk

Study: Iron accumulation may up Alzheimer's risk

Scores of researchers have endeavored to uncover the key perpetrators of Alzheimer’s disease and have arrived at the usual suspects — aging and proteins tau and beta-amyloid. But a report from the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA aims to change all that, bringing another player, iron accumulation, into the risk fold.

According to the study, elevated levels of iron can promote a myelin tissue breakdown often associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Focusing on the hippocampus and the thalamus, researchers led by George Bartzokis, MD, professor of psychiatry, observed the iron levels in the brains of 31 patients with Alzheimer’s disease and 68 patients without the condition via MRI technology. 

"It is difficult to measure iron in tissue when the tissue is already damaged,"  Bartzokis said. "But the MRI technology we used in this study allowed us to determine that the increase in iron is occurring together with the tissue damage. We found that the amount of iron is increased in the hippocampus and is associated with tissue damage in patients with Alzheimer's but not in the healthy older individuals — or in the thalamus. So the results suggest that iron accumulation may indeed contribute to the cause of Alzheimer's disease."

In light of such findings, the study group delved into previous literature and industry recommendations that have a proven track record of keeping iron levels in the healthy range.

“The accumulation of iron in the brain may be influenced by modifying environmental factors, such as how much red meat and iron dietary supplements we consume and, in women, having hysterectomies before menopause," Bartzokis noted.

Currently, medications that can remove iron deposits in the brain and other tissues are being developed in attempts to head off such risk. MRI technology can assist physicians in deciding for whom those future therapies will be most effective.

The study was published in the latest edition of the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.