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Longitudinal development of brain iron is linked to cognition in youth

Larsen B, Bourque J, Moore TM, Adebimpe A, Calkins ME, Elliott MA, Gur RC, Gur RE, Moberg PJ, Roalf DR, Ruparel K, Turetsky BI, Vandekar SN, Wolf DH, Shinohara RT, Satterthwaite TD (2020) J Neurosci.  2020 Jan.  pii: 2434-19. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2434-19.2020. [Epub ahead of print] 

Web URL: Read this and related abstracts on PubMed here


Brain iron is vital to multiple aspects of brain function, including oxidative metabolism, myelination, and neurotransmitter synthesis. Atypical iron concentration in the basal ganglia is associated with neurodegenerative disorders in aging and cognitive deficits. However, the normative development of brain iron concentration in adolescence and its relationship to cognition are less well understood.

Here, we address this gap in a 
longitudinal sample of 922 humans aged 8-26 years at the first visit (M = 15.1, SD = 3.72; 336 males, 486 females) with up to four multi-echo T2* scans each. Using this sample of 1,236 imaging sessions, we assessed the longitudinal developmental trajectories of tissue iron in the basal ganglia. We quantified tissue iron concentration using R2* relaxometry within four basal ganglia regions, including the caudate, putamen, nucleus accumbens, and globus pallidus.

longitudinal development of R2* was modeled using generalized additive mixed models (GAMMs) with splines to capture linear and nonlinear developmental processes.

We observed significant increases in R2* across all regions, with the greatest and most prolonged increases occurring in the globus pallidus and putamen.

Further, we found that the developmental trajectory of R2* in the putamen is significantly related to individual differences in cognitive ability, such that greater cognitive ability is increasingly associated with greater 
iron concentration through late adolescence and young-adulthood.

Together, our results suggest a prolonged period of basal ganglia 
iron enrichment that extends into the mid-twenties, with diminished iron concentration associated with poorer cognitive ability during late adolescence.


Brain tissue iron is essential to healthy brain function. Atypical basal ganglia tissue iron levels have been linked to impaired cognition in iron deficient children and adults with neurodegenerative disorders. However, the normative developmental trajectory of basal ganglia iron concentration during adolescence and its association with cognition are less well understood.

In the largest study of tissue 
iron development yet reported, we characterize the developmental trajectory of tissue iron concentration across the basal ganglia during adolescence and provide evidence that diminished iron content is associated with poorer cognitive performance even in healthy youth.

These results highlight the transition from adolescence to adulthood as a period of dynamic maturation of tissue 
iron concentration in the basal ganglia.


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