Measuring iron within the brain may imply dementia

Researchers have found a way to detect dementia development in people with Parkinson’s disease by analyzing iron deposits within their brains.

Close up of doctors hands pointing at brain xrays images on digital tablet. Medical team in clinic analyzing MRI scans on digital tablet.
New research finds a strong link between iron levels in the brain and cognitive health.

A team of researchers have discovered that dementia development in people with Parkinson’s disease can be assessed by monitoring iron deposits in their brains.

Their findings have appeared in the Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry Journal.

Scanning for dementia course in Parkinson’s typically concentrates on the loss of brain sections. Typically, however, brain imaging can only identify certain changes late in the severity of the disease.

As a result, doctors normally determine progression of dementia by tracking symptoms.

Dementia and Parkinson’s

The symptoms of dementia, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), include a loss of the ability to think, reason or remember. Certain symptoms include behavioral changes that influence a person’s daily life.

Multiple disorders may cause dementia, and at the same time an individual can also have mixed dementias.

Parkinson’s disease and dementia are closely linked. Dementia also affects up to 50 percent of people with Parkinson’s.

People with Parkinson’s can experience pain in their joints, shaking or trembling, and walking difficulty.

It occurs when a person’s brain cells die, though the cause for this is not yet clear. At its peak, Parkinson’s can damage a person’s brain by large volumes. This is where scans will detect it at this point.

It is the depletion of that volume of brain that often causes dementia symptoms.

People with Parkinson’s often have a accumulation of protein in their brains, something that is also seen in people with Alzheimer’s disease according to the NIA.

The study’s authors in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry state that the accumulation of iron in a person’s brain— a natural part of the aging process — has been correlated with the increased presence of protein.

According to the lead author of the study Dr. Rimona Weil of University College London (UCL), Queen Square Institute of Neurology in the United Kingdom, “Iron in the brain is of increasing interest to people who are studying neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and dementias.”

“As you get older, iron accumulates in the brain, but it’s also related to the build-up of harmful brain proteins, so we’re beginning to find evidence that it might be useful in tracking disease progression, and perhaps even diagnosis.”

A new scanning technique

Instead of assessing Parkinson’s by searching for brain volume loss, the researchers used a new technique called quantitative susceptibility mapping that uses magnetic resonance imaging, instead.

The team identified 97 people with Parkinson’s disease who had been diagnosed with the disease within the past 10 years, as well as a control group of 37 age-equivalent individuals who had not had the disease.

The researchers tested both groups for their memory and thinking skills, as well as for their motor functions that influence balance and motion.

The researchers then used the new scanning technique to gage the presence of iron in the brain of each person. They compared the amount of iron to their scores for thought, memory, and motor function.

They found that people with higher amounts of iron in their brains, depending on the location of the iron concentration, performed worse in their thought, memory and motor functions.

For example, in those areas, people with more iron in their brain’s hippocampus and thalamus regions, which affect thought and memory, performed worse.

Better diagnosis of dementia?

The findings are noteworthy in that they provide researchers with a new way of identifying dementia development much faster and with greater accuracy than current techniques.

This would be useful for researchers performing clinical studies on Parkinson’s and dementia development but could theoretically be beneficial for early dementia diagnosis as well.

According to the study’s first author, George Thomas, “It’s really exciting to see interventions like this that can potentially monitor Parkinson’s disease’s varying progression, as it could help clinicians design better care plans for people depending on how their disorder manifests.”

The co-author of the study, Dr. Julio Acosta-Cabronero of Tenoke Ltd., and the Wellcome Center for Human Neuroimaging, UCL, also commented on the findings:

“We were shocked how well cognitive and motor skills matched the iron levels measured in different regions of the brain with MRI.”

“We hope that brain iron measurement could be useful for a wide range of conditions, such as to gauge dementia severity or to see which brain regions are affected by other movement, neuromuscular, and neuroinflammatory disorders, stroke, traumatic brain injury, and drug abuse.”

– Dr. Julio Acosta-Cabronero

For their study participants, the team plans to continue monitoring the progression of dementia for order to gain additional information on how the development of the disease relates to brain iron levels.

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