Background: The basal ganglia contain the highest levels of iron in the brain and post-mortem studies indicate a disruption of iron metabolism in the basal ganglia of patients with neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease (AD) and Huntington's disease (HD). Iron can catalyze free radical reactions and may contribute to oxidative damage observed in AD and HD brain. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can quantify transverse relaxation rates, which can be used to quantify tissue iron stores as well as evaluate increases in MR-visible water (an indicator of tissue damage).
Methods: A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) method termed the field dependent relaxation rate increase (FDRI) was employed which quantifies the iron content of ferritin molecules (ferritin iron) with specificity through the combined use of high and low field-strength MRI instruments. Three basal ganglia structures (caudate, putamen and globus pallidus) and one comparison region (frontal lobe white matter) were evaluated. Thirty-one patients with AD and a group of 68 older control subjects, and 11 patients with HD and a group of 27 adult controls participated (4 subjects overlap between AD and HD controls).
Results: Compared to their respective normal control groups, increases in basal ganglia FDRI levels were seen in both AD and HD. FDRI levels were significantly increased in the caudate (p = 0.007) and putamen (p = 0.008) of patients with AD with a trend toward an increase in the globus pallidus (p = 0.13). In the patients with HD, all three basal ganglia regions showed highly significant FDRI increases (p<0.001) and the magnitude of the increases were 2 to 3 times larger than those observed in AD versus control group comparison. For both HD andAD subjects, the basal ganglia FDRI increase was not a generalized phenomenon, as frontal lobe white matter FDRI levels were decreased in HD (p = 0.015) and remained unchanged in AD. Significant low field relaxation rate decreases (suggestive of increased MR-visible water and indicative of tissue damage) were seen in the frontal lobe white matter of both HD and AD but only the HD basal ganglia showed such decreases.
Conclusions: The data suggest that basal ganglia ferritin iron is increased in HD and AD. Furthermore, the increased iron levels do not appear to be a byproduct of the illness itself since they seem to be present at the onset of the diseases, and thus may be considered a putative risk factor. Published post-mortem studies suggest that the increase in basal ganglia ferritin iron may occur through different mechanisms in HD and AD. Consistent with the known severe basal ganglia damage, only HD basal ganglia demonstrated significant decreases in low field relaxation rates. MRI can be used to dissect differences in tissue characteristics, such as ferritin iron and MR-visible water, and thus could help clarify neuropathologic processes in vivo. Interventions aimed at decreasing brain iron levels, as well as reducing the oxidative stress associated with increased iron levels, may offer novel ways to delay the rate of progression and possibly defer the onset of AD and HD.