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Vol. 144, No. 3, 1992
Issue release date: 1992
Acta Anatomica 1992;144:235–257

Histochemical Distribution of Non-Haem Iron in the Human Brain

Morris C.M. · Candy J.M. · Oakley A.E. · Bloxham C.A. · Edwardson J.A.
aMRC Neurochemical Pathology Unit and bDepartment of Pathology, Newcastle General Hospital, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

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The detailed anatomical distribution of iron in the post-mortem human brain has been studied using Perl’s and Turnbull’s methods with the diaminobenzidine intensification procedure for the demonstration of non-haem Fe3+ and Fe2+ respectively. Attention to methodological procedures has revealed that even brief immersion of tissue in routinely used fixatives causes a reduction of staining intensity in areas of high iron content and, often, loss of staining in areas of low iron content. Optimal staining is obtained using frozen section briefly fixed for 5 min in 4% formalin and Perl’s stain (Fe3+) with diaminobenzidine intensification. Highest levels of stainable iron were found in the extrapyramidal system with the globus pallidus, substantia nigra zona reticulata, red nucleus and myelinated fibres of the putamen showing highest staining reactivity. Moderate staining intensity with Perl’s technique was found in the majority of forebrain, midbrain and cerebellar structures with the striatum, thalamus, cortex and deep white matter, substantia nigra zona compacta, and cerebellar cortex showing consistent staining patterns with intensification of Perl’s stain. The brain-stem and spinal cord generally only showed staining with the intensification procedure and even this was of low intensity. Microscopically the non-heam iron appears to be found predominantly in glial cells as fine cytoplasmic granules which in heavily stained areas coalesce to fill the entire cell. Iron-positive granules appear to be free in the neuropil and also around blood vessels in the globus pallidus, striatum and substantia nigra. The neuropil shows a fibrous impregnation when stained for iron which is, in part, derived from glial processes, myelinated fibres and fibre bundles. Neurones, in general, show only very low reactivity for iron, and this is difficult to discern due, often, to the higher reactivity of the surrounding neuropil. In the globus pallidus and substantia nigra zona reticulata, neurones with highly stainable iron content are found with granular cytoplasmic iron reactivity similar to that seen in the local glial cells. Our results are comparable with those of early workers, but with the use of intensification extend the distribution of non-haem iron to areas previously reported as negative. No apparent correlation of iron staining with known neurotransmitter systems is seen and the predilection for the extrapyramidal system is not easily explained, though the non-haem iron in the brain appears to be as a storage form in the iron storage protein ferritin. The localization of iron in the brain provides a foundation for the study of iron in certain neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, where iron has been implicated in the pathogenesis.

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