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Infant Formula, Parkinson's Tie Probed

Research in Mice Finds Iron in Infancy May Increase Risk Later in Life
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 15, 2006 -- Early research in mice shows that being fed iron-fortified formula in infancy may increase the risk of developing Parkinson's diseaseParkinson's disease late in life.

In the study, newborn mice exposed to dietary iron levels similar to those found in infant formula showed evidence of Parkinson's-like neurological degeneration as they aged, the researchers say.

The findings fall far short of proving a link between early life dietary exposure to iron and Parkinson's disease.

And the infant formula industry argues the results have no relevance for formula use -- that mice in the study were actually given much higher levels of iron than an infant would receive from their product.

But the researchers say the study should prompt research in humans to determine if a link with Parkinson's exists.

"This is the first animal study that we know of suggesting that a dietary factor in infancy can impact Parkinson's risk later in life," researcher Julie Andersen, PhD, tells WebMD. "Parkinson's disease is the second most prevalent neurondegenerative disease, after Alzheimer's. This is certainly something that deserves a closer look."

Impact of Early Iron Unknown

It is estimated that 1.5 million Americans have Parkinson's disease, a progressively degenerative brain disorder most common in people over age 65. Symptoms include tremors, slowness of movement, rigidity, and difficulty with balance.

Parkinson's patients have been shown to have higher than normal levels of iron in parts of their brains associated with the disease, but the significance of this has not been well understood.

In earlier animal studies, Florida State University researchers found that mice given a Parkinson's-inducing drug developed Parkinson's-like symptoms and brain changes when fed adequate levels of iron. However, iron-restricted mice seemed to have some protection.

Although iron levels increase in the brain with age, dietary exposures very early in life may have the biggest impact on brain iron levels, Andersen says. That may be because passage of iron into the human brain is at its highest during the first year of life.

"This is why we started looking at infant formulas," Andersen says. "Iron is important early in life and having insufficient amounts can result in catastrophic problems, including mental retardation. But we don't know the impact of early exposure after childhood."

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