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Excess Iron in Brain Linked with Alzheimer's Disease

Aug 21, 2013 06:27 AM EDT

Iron accumulation in the brain may be associated with Alzheimer's disease, a new study reported.

The study, conducted by University of California - Los Angeles researchers, shows that excess amount of iron in the brain may lead to development of the memory-robbing disease. Most researchers believe that the disease progresses due to the accumulation of one of two proteins- tau or beta-amyloid.

The latest study suggests that another Alzheimer's cause could be the accumulation of iron.

Recently, a study showed that copper could prevent the brain from removing beta amyloid and accelerate the progression of Alzheimer's disease.

The present research included 31 patients with Alzheimer's and 68 healthy control subjects. Researchers used an MRI technique that measured the levels of iron in ferritin, a protein that stores iron. They conducted the brain scans specifically on two regions of the brain- the hippocampus and thalamus. The hippocampus is damaged early in the disease while the thalamus largely remains unaffected.

The team found that excess amount of iron in hippocampus was associated with tissue damage in the region. Oligodendrocytes produce myelin and are known to have high levels of iron than any other cells of the brain. Dietary iron is essential for many functions, but excess iron in the brain could damage the cells.

"It is difficult to measure iron in tissue when the tissue is already damaged. 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," Dr. George Bartzokis, a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and senior author of the study.

Alzheimer's disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks of daily living, according to National Institute on Aging.

"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 said in a news release.

The study is published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.

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