In this study, Mendelian randomization was used to study genes known to modify iron levels, and the effect of iron on Parkinson's disease (PD) risk was estimated. Based on estimates of the genetic effects on both iron and PD obtained from the largest sample meta-analyzed to date, the findings suggest that increased iron levels in the blood are associated with a 3% reduction in the risk of Parkinson's disease for every 10 µg/dL increase in iron. The results of this analysis have potentially important implications for future research into the prevention of Parkinson's disease.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Although levels of iron are known to be increased in the brains of patients with Parkinson disease (PD), epidemiological evidence on a possible effect of iron blood levels on PD risk is inconclusive, with effects reported in opposite directions. Epidemiological studies suffer from problems of confounding and reverse causation, and mendelian randomization (MR) represents an alternative approach to provide unconfounded estimates of the effects of biomarkers on disease. We performed a MR study where genes known to modify iron levels were used as instruments to estimate the effect of iron on PD risk, based on estimates of the genetic effects on both iron and PD obtained from the largest sample meta-analyzed to date.
Methods and Findings
We used as instrumental variables three genetic variants influencing iron levels, HFE rs1800562, HFE rs1799945, and TMPRSS6 rs855791. Estimates of their effect on serum iron were based on a recent genome-wide meta-analysis of 21,567 individuals, while estimates of their effect on PD risk were obtained through meta-analysis of genome-wide and candidate gene studies with 20,809 PD cases and 88,892 controls. Separate MR estimates of the effect of iron on PD were obtained for each variant and pooled by meta-analysis. We investigated heterogeneity across the three estimates as an indication of possible pleiotropy and found no evidence of it. The combined MR estimate showed a statistically significant protective effect of iron, with a relative risk reduction for PD of 3% (95% CI 1%–6%; p = 0.001) per 10 µg/dl increase in serum iron.
Our study suggests that increased iron levels are causally associated with a decreased risk of developing PD. Further studies are needed to understand the pathophysiological mechanism of action of serum iron on PD risk before recommendations can be made.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Parkinson disease is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system caused by the death of dopamine-generating cells in the substania nigra, a region of the midbrain. The earliest symptoms are usually movement-related and include tremor, slow movements, and difficulty walking, and later cognitive and behavioral problems may arise, with dementia commonly occurring in the advanced stages of the disease. Parkinson disease affects around ten million people world-wide and incidence increases with age, with men more affected than women. To date, the causes of Parkinson disease remain unknown although a combination of genetic and environmental factors is thought to play a role. Identifying possible modifiable risks is an important step in the possible prevention of Parkinson disease.
Why Was This Study Done?
Previous studies have shown a possible association between lower blood levels of iron in people with Parkinson disease compared with controls, although the quality of these studies makes this finding difficult to interpret. So in this study, the researchers used a mendelian randomization approach to investigate whether there was any evidence of an effect of blood iron levels on the risk of Parkinson disease and if so to further explore the direction and scale of any link. Mendelian randomization is a method of using measured variation in genes of known function to examine the causal effect of a modifiable exposure on disease in situations where it is inappropriate to perform a randomized controlled trial.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers estimated the effect of blood iron levels on the risk of Parkinson disease using three polymorphisms in two genes, HFE and TMPRSS6. For each polymorphism, they performed a meta-analysis combining the results of studies investigating the genetic effect on iron levels, which included almost 22,000 people from Europe and Australia, and a meta-analysis of studies investigating the genetic effect on the risk of Parkinson disease, which included a total of 20,809 people with Parkinson disease and 88,892 controls from Europe and North America. They then performed three separate mendelian randomization analyses to estimate the effect of iron on Parkinson disease for the three polymorphisms. By combining the three estimates, they obtained a statistically significant odds ratio of 0.97 for Parkinson disease per 10 µg/dl increase in iron, corresponding to a 3% reduction in the risk of Parkinson disease for every 10 µg/dl increase in blood iron. Since genotype influences on blood iron levels represent differences that generally persist throughout adult life, the combined mendelian randomization estimate reflects an effect of iron over the course of a lifetime.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that increased iron levels in the blood are associated with a 3% reduction in the risk of Parkinson disease for every 10 µg/dl increase in iron. This finding is important as it suggests that increased blood iron levels may have a protective effect against Parkinson disease, although the underlying mechanism remains unclear. Furthermore, although mendelian randomization is an increasingly used approach to address the issue of classical confounding, there may be remaining confounding factors specific of mendelian randomization that may influence the interpretation of this study. Nevertheless, the results of this analysis have potentially important implications for future research into the prevention of Parkinson disease. Further studies on the underlying mechanisms are needed before any specific treatment recommendations can be proposed.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001462.
The National Institutes of Neurological Disorder and Stroke, MedlinePlus, and NHS Choices have several pages with comprehensive information on Parkinson disease
Wikipedia gives an explanation of mendelian randomization (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)