Excessive Iron in the Brain May Be a Factor in Alzheimer's Disease

Researchers say a type of iron called magnetite shows up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. Figuring out why could lead to new treatments for the disease.


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A type of iron called magnetite may lead researchers down the path to a more effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

Magnetite is not usually found in the human brain, but researchers say the metal is present in the brains of people affected by Alzheimer’s.

The scientists say the magnetite is found in the abnormal protein clusters known as amyloid plaques that are symptomatic of this disease.

Understanding why they’re there could lead to more effective treatment.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, almost 6 million people in the United States are living with the disease

Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the country.

The association also reports that deaths from Alzheimer’s disease increased 123 percent between 2000 and 2015, while deaths from heart disease (the number one cause of death) decreased 11 percent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that age is the primary risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s, although genetics also plays a major role.

Dr. Eric B. Larson, MPH, executive director of the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute, specifies that “Some forms of Alzheimer’s, especially early onset are associated with certain abnormal genes.”

Detailed evidence

Researchers had previously shown that minerals will form when iron and amyloid protein interact with each other.

However, using synchrotron X-ray facilities with advanced measurement capabilities in the United States and United Kingdom, the team was able to show detailed evidence that these processes occurred in the brains of individuals who had died with Alzheimer’s disease.

Unique observations about the forms of calcium minerals present in the amyloid plaques were also recorded.

Dr. James Hendrix, director of global scientific initiatives at the Alzheimer’s Association, told Healthline that “Iron is an essential element in the brain, so it’s critical to collect more data on how its management could affect Alzheimer’s disease.”

Neither too much, nor too little

For decades, iron was the most common nutritional deficiency in the United States, so many foods are now routinely fortified with iron.

Baby foods, breakfast cereals, breads, even rice and pasta, have added iron.

Iron deficiency is now most likely in babies who are exclusively breastfed, as well as menstruating and pregnant women, strict vegetarians, and people who take medications that cause internal bleeding or interfere with iron absorption.

However, too much dietary iron has been associated with diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.

A recent study from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) also linked high iron levels to Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers there said the connection may be because excess iron can cause oxidative stress, a type of damage to which the brain is especially sensitive.

Iron’s essential role

Hendrix says it’s important to understand that the recent study did not find that eating foods containing iron will cause Alzheimer’s disease.

Larson clarifies that this study wasn’t about dietary iron.

“This study is about a new technique to explore the possible role that iron might play in the plaques that are characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.”

As for the role this may have in Alzheimer’s, he says “It’s worth noting that we have found many people who die without any evidence of dementia, even into late life, who also have these plaques.”

Recent studies have shown that iron deficiency can adversely impact memory, although it plays a critical role in maintaining the brain and nervous system. Hendrix says

“This is early research and we don’t yet know how iron is getting into the amyloid plaques. But consuming too little dietary iron can have a serious impact on health,” said Hendrix.

Can we prevent Alzheimer’s disease?

Larson is firm that there is no absolute way to prevent Alzheimer’s the way we can prevent polio with a vaccine.

Hendrix emphasizes that it’s mostly genetics that determines who will develop this disease.

However, there are strategies that might help.

“We do know that the Mediterranean diet can have some benefit. Regular exercise also helps.” Hendrix said. “What’s good for your heart is also good for your brain.”

He recommends reading 10 Ways to Love Your Brain at the Alzheimer’s Association website to learn more methods to maintain cognitive health and reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

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