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Background Brain iron deposition has been linked to several neurodegenerative conditions and reported in alcohol dependence. Whether iron accumulation occurs in moderate drinkers is unknown. Our objectives were to investigate evidence in support of causal relationships between alcohol consumption and brain iron levels and to examine whether higher brain iron represents a potential pathway to alcohol-related cognitive deficits. Methods and findings Observational associations between brain iron markers and alcohol consumption (n=20,729 UK Biobank participants) were compared with associations with genetically-predicted alcohol intake and alcohol use disorder from two-sample Mendelian randomization (MR). Alcohol intake was self-reported via a touchscreen questionnaire at baseline (2006-10). Participants with complete data were included. Multi-organ susceptibility-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (9.60±1.10 years after baseline) was used to ascertain iron content of each brain region (quantitative susceptibility mapping (QSM) and T2*) and liver tissues (T2*), a marker of systemic iron. Main outcomes were susceptibility (χ) and T2*, measures used as indices of iron deposition. Brain regions of interest included putamen, caudate, hippocampi, thalami and substantia nigra. Potential pathways to alcohol-related iron brain accumulation through elevated systemic iron stores (liver) were explored in causal mediation analysis. Cognition was assessed at the scan and in online follow-up (5.82±0.86 years after baseline). Executive function was assessed with the Trail-making Test, fluid intelligence with puzzle tasks and reaction time by a task based on the “Snap” card-game. Mean age was 54.8±7.4 years and 48.6% were female. Weekly alcohol consumption was 17.7±15.9 units and never drinkers comprised 2.7% of the sample. Alcohol consumption was associated with markers of higher iron (χ) in putamen (β=0.08 standard deviation (S.D.) [95% confidence interval 0.06 to 0.09], p<0.001), caudate (β=0.05 [0.04 to 0.07], p<0.001) and substantia nigra (β=0.03 [0.02 to 0.05], p<0.001), and lower iron in the thalami (β= -0.06 [-0.07 to -0.04], p<0.001). Quintile-based analyses found these effects in those consuming >7 units (56g) alcohol weekly. MR analyses provided weak evidence these relationships are causal. Genetically-predicted alcoholic drinks weekly positively associated with putamen and hippocampus susceptibility; however these associations did not survive multiple testing corrections. Weak evidence for a causal relationship between genetically-predicted alcohol use disorder and higher putamen susceptibility was observed, however this was not robust to multiple comparisons correction. Genetically-predicted alcohol use disorder was associated with serum iron and transferrin saturation. Elevated liver iron was observed at just >11 units (88g) alcohol weekly c.f. <7 units (56g)). Systemic iron levels partially mediated associations of alcohol intake with brain iron. Markers of higher basal ganglia iron associated with slower executive function, lower fluid intelligence, and slower reaction times. The main limitations of the study include that χ and T2* can reflect changes in myelin as well as iron, alcohol was self-reported, and MR estimates can be influenced by genetic pleiotropy. Conclusions To the best of our knowledge, this study represents the largest investigation of moderate alcohol consumption and iron homeostasis to date. Alcohol consumption above 7 units weekly associated with higher brain iron. Iron accumulation represents a potential mechanism for alcohol-related cognitive decline.


Journal article


PLoS Medicine


Public Library of Science

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