The impact of brain iron accumulation on cognition: A systematic review

PLoS One. 2020 Oct 15;15(10):e0240697. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0240697. eCollection 2020.


Iron is involved in many processes in the brain including, myelin generation, mitochondrial function, synthesis of ATP and DNA and the cycling of neurotransmitters. Disruption of normal iron homeostasis can result in iron accumulation in the brain, which in turn can partake in interactions which amplify oxidative damage. The development of MRI techniques for quantifying brain iron has allowed for the characterisation of the impact that brain iron has on cognition and neurodegeneration. This review uses a systematic approach to collate and evaluate the current literature which explores the relationship between brain iron and cognition. The following databases were searched in keeping with a predetermined inclusion criterion: Embase Ovid, PubMed and PsychInfo (from inception to 31st March 2020). The included studies were assessed for study characteristics and quality and their results were extracted and summarised. This review identified 41 human studies of varying design, which statistically assessed the relationship between brain iron and cognition. The most consistently reported interactions were in the Caudate nuclei, where increasing iron correlated poorer memory and general cognitive performance in adulthood. There were also consistent reports of a correlation between increased Hippocampal and Thalamic iron and poorer memory performance, as well as, between iron in the Putamen and Globus Pallidus and general cognition. We conclude that there is consistent evidence that brain iron is detrimental to cognitive health, however, more longitudinal studies will be required to fully understand this relationship and to determine whether iron occurs as a primary cause or secondary effect of cognitive decline.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Child
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Iron / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged


  • Iron

Grants and funding

Principal Grant Holder: GW Funder: The Roland Sutton Academic Trust Sponsers only provided financial support.