Breakthrough in identifying causes and treatment for degenerative neurological diseases

A new, high resolution x-ray scanning technique that can look inside a single brain tissue cell, is a major step forward in identifying the role of iron and other metals in degenerative neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

The new technique can identify precisely which iron compounds are present and where they are located in relation to specific tissue structures. This should enable researchers to determine whether they are harmful or harmless. This breakthrough will mean that scientists will be able to unravel the role of iron and other metals in these diseases and use the information to develop new treatments and techniques for early diagnosis. The research will be published in Interface, a new interdisciplinary journal of the Royal Society.

The strong association between high concentrations of iron compounds in brain tissue and degenerative neurological diseases has been known for more than 50 years, but the lack of effective methods of identifying them precisely has vexed researchers until now. While iron is an essential element for living organisms, in some circumstances it can be toxic and in humans, the disruption of normal iron metabolism and an excess of iron in brain tissue, has been strongly linked to virtually all neurodegenerative disorders. The staining techniques used for identifying iron compounds to date, cannot identify precisely where the iron is or what type of iron compound it is and this information is essential for identifying and treating these diseases.

Using what they have learned through this new technique, the scientists are now working on understanding the role of metals in the brain and whether the anomalies cause the diseases or are deposited as a result of them. Professor Jon Dobson from the Institute for Science and Technology in Medicine at Keele University, has been working on the new technique with scientists in America. He says: “This work will enable scientists to understand the properties of iron compounds and where they are in relation to structures in the tissue. Using this information, we are designing techniques that can identify them in the early stages for people at risk which will aid the development of suitable treatment. It also means that we may be able to develop treatments for those whose symptoms are already well-established.

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