Researchers in Australia have reported that levels of an iron storage protein called ferritin may be useful in predicting how problems with memory and thinking will progress in older people.
Iron plays a vital role in many biological processes that keep our brains healthy, and levels of iron can be out of balance in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Levels of the protein ferritin in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) – which surrounds the brain and carries away waste material- can give an indication of how much iron there is in a person’s brain, although the precise nature of this relationship remains unclear.
In this study, researchers looked at ferritin levels in the CSF of three different groups of older participants: people with memory and thinking problems not severe enough to be classified as dementia, known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI); people who have a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s; and people who have no problems with memory or thinking. They then examined changes in the participants’ memory and thinking ability over the following 7 years.
They found that higher levels of ferritin were associated with lower scores on memory and thinking tests for all three groups. The results also showed that higher ferritin levels in people with MCI indicated an increased likelihood of them going on to develop Alzheimer’s disease. People with an Alzheimer’s risk gene called APOE4 were shown to have elevated levels of ferritin, suggesting that this gene may be increasing a person’s risk of the disease by affecting iron levels in the brain.
Dr Eric Karran, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, said:
“Understanding the processes that underlie the progression of memory and thinking problems in old age is a key goal of dementia research. While this study adds to existing evidence suggesting that iron plays an important role in Alzheimer’s disease, it doesn’t provide a test that would be useful in the clinic.
“Currently half a million people are living with Alzheimer’s in the UK, and we must invest much more in research if we are to find effective ways to treat the disease. Studies like this one can highlight areas for future research and potential targets for new treatments.”