In vivo evaluation of heme and non-heme iron content and neuronal density in human basal ganglia

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Non-heme iron is an important element supporting the structure and functioning of biological tissues. Imbalance in non-heme iron can lead to different neurological disorders. Several MRI approaches have been developed for iron quantification relying either on the relaxation properties of MRI signal or measuring tissue magnetic susceptibility. Specific quantification of the non-heme iron can, however, be constrained by the presence of the heme iron in the deoxygenated blood and contribution of cellular composition. The goal of this paper is to introduce theoretical background and experimental MRI method allowing disentangling contributions of heme and non-heme irons simultaneously with evaluation of tissue neuronal density in the iron-rich basal ganglia. Our approach is based on the quantitative Gradient Recalled Echo (qGRE) MRI technique that allows separation of the total R2* metric characterizing decay of GRE signal into tissue-specific (R2t*) and the baseline blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) contributions. A combination with the QSM data (also available from the qGRE signal phase) allowed further separation of the tissue-specific R2t* metric in a cell-specific and non-heme-iron-specific contributions. It is shown that the non-heme iron contribution to R2t* relaxation can be described with the previously developed Gaussian Phase Approximation (GPA) approach. qGRE data were obtained from 22 healthy control participants (ages 26–63 years). Results suggest that the ferritin complexes are aggregated in clusters with an average radius about 100nm comprising approximately 2600 individual ferritin units. It is also demonstrated that the concentrations of heme and non-heme iron tend to increase with age. The strongest age effect was seen in the pallidum region, where the highest age-related non-heme iron accumulation was observed.

Original languageEnglish
Article number118012
StatePublished - Jul 15 2021


  • BOLD
  • Brain iron
  • Neuronal density
  • QSM
  • Quantitative gradient recalled echo MRI
  • R2
  • R2t


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