The pathology of superficial siderosis of the central nervous system

Acta Neuropathol. 2008 Oct;116(4):371-82. doi: 10.1007/s00401-008-0421-z. Epub 2008 Aug 12.


Chronic or intermittent extravasations of blood into the subarachnoid space, and dissemination of heme by circulating cerebrospinal fluid, are the only established causes of superficial siderosis of the central nervous system (CNS). We studied the autopsy tissues of nine patients by iron histochemistry, immunocytochemistry, single- and double-label immunofluorescence, electron microscopy of ferritin, and high-definition X-ray fluorescence. In one case, frozen brain tissue was available for quantitative assay of total iron and ferritin. Siderotic tissues showed extensive deposits of iron and ferritin, and infiltration of the cerebellar cortex was especially severe. In addition to perivascular collections of hemosiderin-laden macrophages, affected tissues displayed iron-positive anuclear foamy structures in the neuropil that resembled axonal spheroids. They were especially abundant in eighth cranial nerves and spinal cord. Double-label immunofluorescence of the foamy structures showed co-localization of neurofilament protein and ferritin but comparable merged images of myelin-basic protein and ferritin, and ultrastructural visualization of ferritin, did not allow the conclusion that axonopathy was simply due to dilatation and rupture of fibers. Heme-oxygenase-1 (HO-1) immunoreactivity persisted in macrophages of siderotic cerebellar folia. Siderosis caused a large increase in total CNS iron but high-definition X-ray fluorescence of embedded tissue blocks excluded the accumulation of other metals. Holoferritin levels greatly exceeded the degree of iron accumulation. The susceptibility of the cerebellar cortex is likely due to Bergmann glia that serve as conduits for heme; and the abundance of microglia. Both cell types biosynthesize HO-1 and ferritin in response to heme. The eighth cranial nerves are susceptible because they consist of CNS axons, myelin, and neuroglial tissue along their subarachnoid course. The persistence of HO-1 protein implies continuous exposure of CNS to free heme or an excessively sensitive transcriptional response of the HO-1 gene. The conversion of heme iron to hemosiderin probably involves both translational and transcriptional activation of ferritin biosynthesis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Central Nervous System / metabolism
  • Central Nervous System / pathology*
  • Central Nervous System Diseases / etiology
  • Central Nervous System Diseases / metabolism
  • Central Nervous System Diseases / pathology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / metabolism
  • Cerebral Cortex / pathology
  • Cranial Nerves / metabolism
  • Cranial Nerves / pathology
  • Female
  • Ferritins / metabolism
  • Heme / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Heme Oxygenase-1 / metabolism
  • Hemosiderin / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Iron / metabolism
  • Male
  • Microglia / metabolism
  • Microglia / pathology
  • Middle Aged
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Siderosis / etiology
  • Siderosis / metabolism
  • Siderosis / pathology*


  • Heme
  • Ferritins
  • Hemosiderin
  • Iron
  • HMOX1 protein, human
  • Heme Oxygenase-1