New research at Western University is providing greater understanding of the critical role that iron deposits in the brain play in multiple sclerosis.

Every day three people in Canada are diagnosed with MS - one of the highest rates in the world.

While everyone has deposits of iron in the brain - moreso as we age - unusual amounts are found in the brains of people with multiple sclerosis.

And Robarts researcher Dr. Ravi Menon is trying to figure out why.

“What we found with the pre-clinical MS patients and with MS patients in general is that iron actually increases well above and beyond what we see in normal healthy subjects.”

Menon studied people with early signs of MS, looking for the amount of iron in their brain. 

“So we found in fact that iron is present at the very earliest stages of multiple sclerosis, even before patients actually receive that diagnosis.”

The research also had some interesting findings about where the iron appears in the brain.

“Not only do we see it in these deep nuclear structures, but we also see it in the cortex, which is a relatively new finding that has not been explored in the past.”

Scientists have known for over a century about the link between iron deposits in the brain and MS, but it’s been unclear if it a cause of the condition or a result of it.

This new Western research will go a long way to help answer that question.

“The important thing to know about iron is it correlates extremely well with the disabilities that the patients have, so this is a very good biomarker of the disease.”

The findings also have implications for the theory behind the so-called liberation therapy - the idea that a narrowing of veins in the neck means increased iron deposits and, in turn, MS.

“And what we found was, although there was - on the right side - a reduction in the venous diameter compared to healthy controls. This reduction did not in any way correlate with the amount of iron seen in the patients’ brains.”

Menon hopes his research will lead to earlier diagnosis of MS.