According to a recent study, people with a rare variant in the HFE gene are three times less likely to develop dementia than the general population.
You’ve probably heard that consuming enough iron is important for overall health. However, too much iron can also be a bad thing. In particular, people with Alzheimer’s disease often have abnormally high levels of iron in their brains. (See The Role of Metals in Alzheimer’s Disease). The question of whether iron is a cause or consequence in Alzheimer’s still remains unanswered.
In a paper published this week in PLoS One, a group of Italian researchers investigated whether the genes that control levels of iron in the body could be related to the risk of dementia. They recruited 765 subjects who had Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, or mild cognitive impairment, as well as 1,086 healthy controls of a similar age. Then they took DNA samples from the subjects and looked at four different genes that are involved in iron metabolism.
They found that one gene called High Ferrum (HFE), which is responsible for controlling absorption of iron from the blood, was protective against dementia. Specifically, subjects who had a particular variant of the HFE gene were one-third as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia compared to subjects who didn’t have the protective variant. The effect was even stronger for mild cognitive impairment, which the HFE variant reduced the risk to only one-fifth.
The researchers then looked at another gene called APOE, which has previously been shown to be involved in Alzheimer’s disease. People with the APOE4 variant of this gene were more than four times as likely to have Alzheimer’s. However, in subjects who also possessed the protective HFE variant, the impact of APOE4 was completely attenuated, and their risk of Alzheimer’s was normal.
How could the HFE gene protect people from dementia? One possibility, known as the metal hypothesis of Alzheimer’s disease, suggests that iron makes amyloid-beta plaques more toxic. Amyloid-beta, a protein that accumulates in Alzheimer’s patients’ brains, can interact with various metal ions to become extra toxic. Normally metals are blocked from entering the brain by the blood-brain barrier, but this barrier tends to become leaky in older people. Thus the hypothesis suggests that influx of iron and other metals into the brain may cause amyloid-beta to aggregate and become more toxic, thus contributing to the development of Alzheimer’s.
However, the metal hypothesis can’t entirely explain these recent findings. For one thing, the variants in iron-controlling genes were also protective against vascular dementia, which does not involve amyloid-beta. In addition, the researchers did not observe any differences in blood iron levels based on these genetic variants, so it’s unclear exactly how these genes may be affecting iron metabolism. Future studies are needed to clarify if and how iron could be involved in Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.