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Too much red meat and iron supplements linked to Alzheimer's disease

A UCLA study shows that elevated levels of iron can damage brain tissue, contributing to the cause of the disease.

Brain scans.
Brain scans.

IRON THAT IS found in food such as red meat could be a contributing factor to Alzheimer’s disease, a study from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has found.

The new study found a build-up of iron in the section of the brain that is generally damaged in the early stages of the disease but not in the section of the brain that sees the affects of the disease later on.

Research by Dr George Bartzokis, a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and senior author of the study has found there is a third possible cause for the disease.

Disruption of signals

It is widely believed amongst scientists that two proteins called tau and beta-amyloid either disrupt signalling between neurons or kill them as we get older, causing Alzheimer’s. However, Dr Bartzokis tested two sections of the brain – the the hippocampus, which is known to be damaged early in the disease, and the thalamus, an area that is generally not affected until the late stages.

He found that iron is increased in the hippocampus and is associated with tissue damage in that area. But increased iron was not found in the thalamus.

By comparing brain scans the study showed that elevated levels of iron in the brain tissue of the hippocampus caused the tissue breakdown associated with Alzheimer’s disease. This is a key area of the brain linked with memory formation.

The study, which was published in the August edition of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, was carried out on 31 patients with Alzheimer’s and 68 healthy control subjects.

Speaking about his research, Dr Bartzokis said, while the study did not prove that iron is the sole cause for the disease, the research shows that it “may indeed contribute to the cause”. He said:

We found that the amount of iron is increased in the hippocampus and is associated with tissue damage in patients with Alzheimer’s but not in the healthy older individuals — or in the thalamus. So the results suggest that iron accumulation may indeed contribute to the cause of Alzheimer’s disease.

The positive side to his research is that he says it could be prevented. He said:

The accumulation of iron in the brain may be influenced by modifying environmental factors, such as how much red meat and iron dietary supplements we consume and, in women, having hysterectomies before menopause.

He added that medications could also be used to tackle the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

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