BACKGROUND: Neurodegeneration with brain iron accumulation (NBIA) is characterized by pathological iron accumulation in the subcortical nuclei and the cortex. As age-related iron accumulation studies in these structures are lacking in healthy aging, we aimed to characterize the dynamics of age-dependent iron accumulation in subcortical nuclei in healthy aging and selected NBIA cases. This is fundamental to understand the natural age-related iron deposition in the healthy brain prior to using this marker as a potential prognostic or diagnostic tool in neurodegenerative disorders.
METHODS: Susceptibility-weighted imaging (SWI) scans from 81 healthy volunteers (0-79 years) and four genetically confirmed patients suffering from NBIA (2-14 years) were obtained. We scored the presence or absence of pencil lining of the motor cortex and putamen and analyzed the normalized SWI signal intensity ratio (NSIR) in five subcortical nuclei.
RESULTS: In healthy subjects, an age-dependent increase of pencil lining occurred starting from the second decade of life and was present in all cases at the age of 50. In their first decade, NBIA patients showed no cortical pencil lining, but we did observe putaminal pencil lining at this stage. In healthy subjects, age and NSIR of all nuclei correlated positively and was particularly dynamic in early childhood until young adulthood in the globus pallidus, dentate nucleus and red nucleus, but not in the caudate nucleus and putamen. NBIA patients showed an increased NSIR in the globus pallidus only and not in the other subcortical nuclei compared to age-matched healthy subjects.
CONCLUSIONS: Cortical pencil lining is part of healthy aging. This should be considered when assessing this as a potential marker in NBIA diagnosis and prognosis. Putaminal pencil lining has the potential to become a specific marker for some subtypes of NBIA in the first decade of life, as it was only observed in NBIA and not in age-matched healthy subjects. NSIR in the subcortical nuclei during healthy aging was shown to be dynamic, accentuating the importance of having an age-dependent baseline.