We often hear that Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia damage the brain, but we do not fully understand how this happens.
Now a team of scientists from 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, destroys certain brain cells called microglia. These are like our brain’s caretakers – they help clean up trash.
Stephen Back, the study’s lead author, calls this an “important finding.” Back has a long history of studying the brain, particularly the protective layers around nerve fibers. This new study builds on that work.
The caretakers are dying, and that’s bad news
Microglia are usually the good guys in our brain. They act like a cleanup team, especially when something called myelin is damaged.
Myelin is a protective covering around our nerve fibers – think of it like the insulation around electrical wires. When this insulation is damaged, microglia are usually the first to start cleaning up.
However, the new study shows that these microglia actually destroy themselves in the process. Why? Because they clean the iron-rich myelin.
This triggers ferroptosis – the cell death caused by too much iron. Simply put, the brain’s caretakers are dying because they are sweeping up something toxic.
The surprising thing is that we never knew this was happening on such a large scale.
Where to next? Hope for future treatment
According to Back, this new understanding is like looking for a missing puzzle piece in our knowledge of dementia. He believes this discovery will cause a stir in the medical world, particularly among pharmaceutical companies looking for new treatment options.
The focus could soon turn to developing drugs that can prevent these helpful microglia from dying.
Stephen Back suspects that the root cause of this cycle is likely related to ongoing problems such as low blood flow and less oxygen delivery to the brain.
This can be due to medical conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes, or even acute events such as a stroke.
“Dementia doesn’t happen overnight,” says Back. “It is a long-term process and we need to identify it early to prevent it from getting out of control.”
This discovery opens a new way to treat Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. We hope that with more research we can develop effective treatments to stop or even reverse these debilitating diseases.
So next time you hear about “iron overload,” remember that it’s not just about diet or blood; It could be about preserving the brain’s ability to keep itself clean.
If you care about your brain health, please read studies about a key to activating the brain’s “fountain of youth” and how COVID-19 triggers an immune response in the brain.
For more information about brain health, check out recent studies on heartburn medications that could increase the risk of dementia. The results show that this MIND diet can protect your cognitive functions and prevent dementia.
The research results can be found in the Annals of Neurology.
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