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As many as 10 million people living in the United States have low iron levels. Findings from a new study suggest that iron levels in the basal ganglia region of the brain during youth influence cognitive ability.

Iron is an essential nutrient that plays critical roles in many facets of brain function, including cellular respiration, neurotransmitter synthesis, and myelination – a process essential to nerve cell transmission and cognitive development. Iron can be obtained in the diet from both animal and plant sources.

The basal ganglia comprise clusters of neurons located deep within the cerebral hemispheres, at the base of the forebrain and the top of the midbrain. They participate in a wide range of cognitive, motor, and emotive functions.

The longitudinal study involved more than 800 young people between the ages of 8 and 26 years old who were enrolled in the Philadelphia Neurodevelopment Cohort study. The participants underwent neuroimaging scans up to three times during the study period to quantify iron levels in four regions (caudate, putamen, nucleus accumbens, and globus pallidus) of their basal ganglia. They also completed cognitive performance tests to assess executive control, complex cognition, episodic memory, social cognition, and motor speed.

The imaging scans revealed that iron levels increased over time in all four regions of the basal ganglia, with the greatest concentrations present in the globus pallidus and putamen, areas that regulate voluntary movement and learning. Higher iron concentrations in the putamen, in particular, were related to higher cognitive abilities among the participants. The accumulation of iron in these regions occurred earlier in females.

These findings highlight the importance of proper nutrition during development and suggest that iron supplementation may be beneficial, especially during adolescence.

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