Iron-rich cells in brain could lead to earlier Alzheimer’s diagnoses

Inflammatory, iron-rich cells have been found in post-mortem tissue from the brains of Alzheimer’s disease patients, and the discovery could lead to a new method of diagnosing and monitoring the progress of the neurodegenerative condition, according to a new study.

Writing in the latest edition of the journal Neurobiology of Aging, researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine explained that they were found iron in specialized scavenger cells known as microglia in a specific regions of the hippocampus of these Alzheimer’s patients.

These iron deposits were not found in the post-mortem brain tissue of people who had not been diagnosed with the condition, nor were the scavenger cells found in the hippocampus, which is a part of the brain that plays a key role in memory formation, according to the study authors.

This discovery indicates that that high-field magnetic resonance imaging – specifically, 7T MRI, a cutting edge technique that uses a powerful 7-Tesla magnet – could eventually help detect and keep track of the condition earlier and better than is currently possible, they added.

Potential way to detect Alzheimer’s, but obstacles to overcome

Lead author Dr. Michael Zeineh, an assistant professor in the Stanford Department of Radiology, told redOrbit via email that he and his colleagues were “trying to investigate Alzheimer’s brain specimens with MRI to see if we can find some biomarker of Alzheimer’s disease pathology that could someday be translated to living humans” when they made the discovery.

While the research indicates that 7T MRI has potential to help detect and monitor the condition, Dr. Zeineh noted that there are “several obstacles” to overcome before that can happen.

“We are working… to try and identify this same iron/inflammation pathology that we saw in the specimens, in living humans,” he said, adding that the iron spots “are really small, so we need a really powerful camera like the 7T scanner” in order to detect them. They are currently working to figure out how to “best take advantage of this scanner, and that is the subject of studies we are planning right now to see if it will be possible. We hope it will be but don’t know right now.”

In a statement, Dr. Zeineh explained that microglia are the brain’s immune cells, and typically they are in a relaxed state – unless they encounter something suspicious, at which time they are activated. Most of the microglia found to contain iron as part of this study were in an activated state, and while these cells had previously been linked to the early-stage inflammatory pathology of the Alzheimer’s, these new findings could advance the understanding of the disease.

The authors plan to explore this link further in future research, examining more wide-ranging areas of the brain and look for additional cell types within a greater number of brain specimens. Furthermore, they intend to search for iron-filled microglia in the brains of living individuals in the early stages of neurodegeneration and pre-Alzheimer’s memory loss.


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