Scientific researchers have long believed Alzheimer's disease is caused, at least in part, by a clumping of two kinds of proteins in the brain, which muddies thinking and destroys memory. But a new study out of the University of California-Los Angeles suggests a third possible cause — an accumulation of iron that destroys brain cells.
The findings, published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, challenge conventional thinking about the disease's cause. They also open a potential new door to treating or even preventing the debilitating age-related mental disorder by reducing consumption of iron in the diet or using medications that remove it from the body.
"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," said lead researcher George Bartzokis, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.
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Until now, most researchers have believed Alzheimer's is caused by the accumulation of two proteins — one called tau, the other beta-amyloid — as we age. But when Dr. Bartzokis and his colleagues used MRIs to examine the brains of Alzheimer's patients, they found that a region often damaged by the disease — the hippocampus — contained higher iron levels than other regions of the brain typically spared by the condition. Those iron levels were also higher than those of healthy patients.
Dr. Bartzokis noted the hippocampus is a key area of the brain involved in the formation of memories and other cognitive functions.
"It is difficult to measure iron in tissue when the tissue is already damaged," he said. "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 [other brain regions]. So the results suggest that iron accumulation may indeed contribute to the cause of Alzheimer's disease."
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