High-field magnetic resonance imaging of brain iron: birth of a biomarker?

NMR Biomed. 2004 Nov;17(7):433-45. doi: 10.1002/nbm.922.


The brain has an unusually high concentration of iron, which is distributed in an unusual pattern unlike that in any other organ. The physiological role of this iron and the reasons for this pattern of distribution are not yet understood. There is increasing evidence that several neurodegenerative diseases are associated with altered brain iron metabolism. Understanding these dysmetabolic conditions may provide important information for their diagnosis and treatment. For many years the iron distribution in the human brain could be studied effectively only under postmortem conditions. This situation was changed dramatically by the finding that T2-weighted MR imaging at high field strength (initially 1.5 T) appears to demonstrate the pattern of iron distribution in normal brains and that this imaging technique can detect changes in brain iron concentrations associated with disease states. Up to the present time this imaging capability has been utilized in many research applications but it has not yet been widely applied in the routine diagnosis and management of neurodegenerative disorders. However, recent advances in the basic science of brain iron metabolism, the clinical understanding of neurodegenerative diseases and in MRI technology, particularly in the availability of clinical scanners operating at the higher field strength of 3 T, suggest that iron-dependent MR imaging may soon provide biomarkers capable of characterizing the presence and progression of important neurological disorders. Such biomarkers may be of crucial assistance in the development and utilization of effective new therapies for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, multiple sclerosis and other iron-related CNS disorders which are difficult to diagnose and treat.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers / analysis
  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Brain Mapping / methods
  • Electromagnetic Fields
  • Ferritins / analysis
  • Ferritins / metabolism
  • Hemosiderin / analysis
  • Hemosiderin / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Image Enhancement / methods*
  • Iron / analysis
  • Iron / metabolism*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / metabolism*


  • Biomarkers
  • Ferritins
  • Hemosiderin
  • Iron