We often hear that Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia degrade the brain, but we haven’t fully understood how.
Now, a team of scientists at Oregon Health & Science University has made a groundbreaking discovery.
They found that a form of cell death called “ferroptosis,” caused by too much iron in cells, is destroying specific brain cells called microglia. These are like the janitors of our brain—they help clean up waste.
Stephen Back, the senior author of the study, calls this a “major finding.” Back has a long history of studying the brain, specifically the protective layers around nerve fibers. This new study builds on that work.
The Janitors are Dying, and It’s Bad News
Microglia are usually the good guys in our brain. They act like a clean-up crew, especially when something called myelin gets damaged.
Myelin is a protective cover around our nerve fibers—think of it like the insulation around electrical wires. If that insulation gets damaged, microglia are usually the first to show up to start the cleaning.
However, the new study shows that these microglia are actually getting destroyed themselves in the process. Why? Because they are cleaning up myelin that is rich in iron.
This triggers ferroptosis—the cell death caused by too much iron. In simple terms, the janitors of the brain are dying because they’re sweeping up something toxic.
The surprising part is that we never knew this was happening on such a large scale until now.
Where to Next? Hope for Future Treatment
This new understanding is like finding a missing puzzle piece in our knowledge about dementia, according to Back. He thinks this discovery will create a buzz in the medical world, especially for drug companies looking for new treatment avenues.
The focus might soon turn towards developing medicines that can stop these helpful microglia from dying off.
Stephen Back suggests that the root cause of this cycle likely links back to ongoing issues like low blood flow and less oxygen getting to the brain.
This could be due to conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, or even because of acute events like a stroke.
“Dementia isn’t something that happens overnight,” Back says. “It’s a long-term process, and we need to catch it early to stop it from spinning out of control.”
This discovery opens up a new avenue for treating Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. The hope is that with more research, we can develop effective treatments to halt or even reverse these debilitating conditions.
So, the next time you hear about “iron overload,” remember, it’s not just about diet or blood; it could be about preserving the brain’s ability to keep itself clean.
For more information about brain health, please see recent studies about heartburn drugs that could increase risk of dementia, and results showing this MIND diet may protect your cognitive function, prevent dementia.
The research findings can be found in the Annals of Neurology.
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