Biomedical engineering faculty member featured in article on the effects of iron in the human brain and Parkinsons disease

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"Iron, says aging expert Naftali Raz, is like the Force. It can be good or bad, depending on the context. When that context is the human brain, though, scientists wrangle over whether iron is a dark force for evil or a bright source of support.

Some iron is absolutely essential for the brain. On that, scientists agree. But recent studies suggest to some researchers that too much iron, and the chemical reactions that ensue, can be dangerous or deadly, especially to nerve cells in the vulnerable brain area that deteriorates with Parkinson’s disease. Yet other work raises the possibility that those cells die because of lack of iron, rather than too much.

“There are a lot of surprises in this field,” says iron biologist Nancy Andrews of Duke University.

The idea that too much iron is dangerous captivates many researchers, including analytical neurochemist Dominic Hare of the University of Technology Sydney. “All of life is a chemical reaction,” he says, “so the start of disease is a chemical reaction as well.”

And as Raz points out, reactions involving iron are both life-sustaining and dangerous. “Iron is absolutely necessary for conducting the very fundamental business in every cell,” says Raz, of Wayne State University in Detroit. It helps produce energy-storing ATP molecules. And that’s a dirty job, throwing off dangerous free radicals that can cause cellular mayhem as energy is made."

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