Too Much Iron May Act Like Rust in the Brain, Is Linked to Alzheimer's Disease

The researchers took scans of the individuals brains to see metal measurements. An MRI machine in France is used to take brain scans. Frank Perry/AFP/Getty Images

Scientists and doctors already knew that Alzheimer's disease patients show a buildup of amyloid protein in the brain. Now high levels of iron are also associated with Alzheimer's, new research published online in Scientific Reports confirmed, identifying the specific iron that forms in patients with the disease. This suggests that rusting of the brain is a factor in the disease, and addressing this excess iron could be an effective treatment option.

For the study, a team of researchers led by Lucia Bossoni from the Leiden Institute of Physics and Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands used a series of medical tests to look at metal in the brains of Alzheimer's patients and in controls without the disease. Exam results revealed that Alzheimer's disease patients had higher amounts of iron in their brains. Specifically, iron concentration in the mineral ferrihydrite was higher in the group of Alzheimer's patients than in the control group, a press release on the study reported.

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The study also identified that this excessive iron was associated with the Braak stage of Alzheimer's disease, a particularly advanced stage of the illness.

Many current attempts at treating Alzheimer's disease focus on clearing away excess amyloid proteins, a protein found in Alzheimer's patients' brains. So far, these attempts have not been successful. This new finding may lead to more effective Alzheimer's disease treatments that aim at clearing away excessive iron. An ongoing, five-year study in Australia that began in March is testing whether an anti-iron drug can be used to slow down the progression of Alzheimer's disease.

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"Given the data from our study, it seems reasonable to hypothesise that lowering iron in the brain would slow the progression of the disease, but we can only know that by testing it, which is what we are now going to do," said lead researcher on the study Scott Ayton, who is based at the Florey Institute and the University of Melbourne, in a statement.

Iron is an important mineral for health, helping our cells create energy from sugars. However, too much iron can also damage brain cells, the University of Melbourne's Pursuit reported.

"The rusting you see on iron metal is the same rusting reaction that occurs in the brain," said Ayton.

The new study proved that this correlation between excess iron and Alzheimer's disease does exist, but the Australian research urged that this excess iron is not the result of a patient's diet. The true cause remains unclear. This new study, however, in addition to ongoing research, will help better explain how iron affects the brain, and how to use this information to help patients.