Robert Zivadinov, MD, PhD.

A study led by Robert Zivadinov, MD, PhD, suggests that increased vegetable intake benefits women but negatively affects men in terms of iron levels in the brain.

Diet May Affect Brain Iron Levels; Results Vary By Gender

Published January 28, 2015

A University at Buffalo pilot study using high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) links dietary habits with iron levels in the brain — a factor associated with various neurological conditions as well as aging.

“We did not expect such a strong gender effect; gender-specific factors may interact with dietary influences.”
Robert Zivadinov, MD, PhD
Professor of neurology and director, UB Buffalo Neuroimaging Analysis Center

The study found that brain iron levels do appear to be influenced by diet, but effects vary according to gender, says senior author Robert Zivadinov, MD, PhD, professor of neurology and director of the UB Buffalo Neuroimaging Analysis Center (BNAC).

Diet Affects Men, Women Differently

In what the researchers believe is the first study of its kind, dietary habits of 190 healthy volunteers — 129 women and 61 men with an average age of 43.2 — were correlated with brain iron levels.

The volunteers reported their intake of dairy products, vegetables, red meat and iron and calcium supplements before undergoing susceptibility-weighted imaging on a 3 Tesla MRI scanner. This specialized equipment allowed researchers to measure tissue iron in vivo.

Results suggest that, in terms of brain iron levels, increased vegetable intake benefits women but negatively affects men.

Men who ate more vegetables and dairy products had higher iron levels in the brain. In women, however, higher vegetable intake was associated with lower brain iron levels while dairy consumption did not seem to affect brain iron levels.

“We did not expect such a strong gender effect,” says Zivadinov, who also directs MRI at UB's Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

Gender-specific factors may interact with dietary influences, he adds. For example, the study indicates that increased intake of red meat is somewhat detrimental to women, but not men, in terms of brain iron levels. Results show a weak trend associating weekly red meat consumption with higher iron levels in the thalamus in women but lower iron levels in the hippocampus in men.

High Iron Levels Affect Physical, Cognitive Health

Excessive amounts of iron have been shown to have detrimental effects on physical and cognitive health through the generation of reactive oxygen species, Zivadinov explains.

In prior studies, he and his colleagues have observed iron accumulation in multiple sclerosis patients, including those in the early stages of the disease. High brain iron levels also have been associated with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological conditions.

Healthy adults have higher concentrations as they age.

Future Directions: Assessing Environmental Factors

Can the right diet help address some of these concerns? 

“We are not at the stage yet of offering any possible dietary recommendations,” notes Jesper Hagemeier, PhD, lead author and research scientist at the BNAC, “but we will continue to study environmental factors, including diet, to better understand the relationship among diet, brain iron levels and neurological function and disorders.”

Zivadinov advises careful interpretation of the pilot study results because diets may vary considerably among individuals and within the same individual.

The researchers plan to confirm findings in a larger sample of healthy individuals. They also plan to investigate specific dietary measures that enhance or inhibit iron absorption.

In addition, to address the need for further study on gender differences, they plan to assess factors that may affect brain iron concentrations in women, such as sex hormones, oral contraceptives and blood loss from menstruation and childbirth.

UB Med School Alumna Is a Co-Author

The pilot study, “Effects of Diet on Brain Iron Levels Among Healthy Individuals: An MRI Pilot Study,” has been published in Neurobiology of Aging.

Co-authors on the paper are: 

  • UB medical education program alumna Olivia Tong, MD ’14, now a resident at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx 
  • Michael G. Dwyer III, PhD, assistant professor of neurology and biomedical informatics, and director of technical imaging at the BNAC
  • Ferdinand Schweser, PhD, assistant professor of neurology and MRI physicist at the CTRC
  • Murali Ramanathan, PhD, professor of pharmaceutical sciences and neurology, based in UB’s School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences