Iron concentrations in neurons and glial cells with estimates on ferritin concentrations

BMC Neurosci. 2019 May 29;20(1):25. doi: 10.1186/s12868-019-0507-7.


Background: Brain iron is an essential as well as a toxic redox active element. Physiological levels are not uniform among the different cell types. Besides the availability of quantitative methods, the knowledge about the brain iron lags behind. Thereby, disclosing the mechanisms of brain iron homeostasis helps to understand pathological iron-accumulations in diseased and aged brains. With our study we want to contribute closing the gap by providing quantitative data on the concentration and distribution of iron in neurons and glial cells in situ. Using a nuclear microprobe and scanning proton induced X-ray emission spectrometry we performed quantitative elemental imaging on rat brain sections to analyze the iron concentrations of neurons and glial cells.

Results: Neurons were analyzed in the neocortex, subiculum, substantia nigra and deep cerebellar nuclei revealing an iron level between [Formula: see text] and [Formula: see text]. The iron concentration of neocortical oligodendrocytes is fivefold higher, of microglia threefold higher and of astrocytes twofold higher compared to neurons. We also analyzed the distribution of subcellular iron concentrations in the cytoplasm, nucleus and nucleolus of neurons. The cytoplasm contains on average 73% of the total iron, the nucleolus-although a hot spot for iron-due to its small volume only 6% of total iron. Additionally, the iron level in subcellular fractions were measured revealing that the microsome fraction, which usually contains holo-ferritin, has the highest iron content. We also present an estimate of the cellular ferritin concentration calculating [Formula: see text] ferritin molecules per [Formula: see text] in rat neurons.

Conclusion: Glial cells are the most iron-rich cells in the brain. Imbalances in iron homeostasis that lead to neurodegeneration may not only be originate from neurons but also from glial cells. It is feasible to estimate the ferritin concentration based on measured iron concentrations and a reasonable assumptions on iron load in the brain.

Keywords: Astrocytes; Elemental analysis; Ferritin; Iron; Microglia; Neurons; Oligodendrocytes; PIXE.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Female
  • Ferritins / metabolism*
  • Iron / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Neuroglia / metabolism*
  • Neurons / metabolism*
  • Rats
  • Spectrometry, X-Ray Emission / methods*
  • Subcellular Fractions / metabolism


  • Ferritins
  • Iron