Oligodendrocytes are the predominant iron-containing cells in the brain. Iron-containing oligodendrocytes are found near neuronal cell bodies, along blood vessels, and are particularly abundant within white matter tracts. Iron-positive cells in white matter are present from birth and eventually reside in defined patches of cells in the adult. These patches of iron-containing cells typically have a blood vessel in their center. Ferritin, the iron storage protein, is also expressed early in development in oligodendrocytes in a regional and cellular pattern similar to that seen for iron. Recently, the functionally distinct subunits of ferritin have been analyzed; only heavy (H)-chain ferritin is found in oligodendrocytes early in development. H-ferritin is associated with high iron utilization and low iron storage. Consistent with the expression of H-ferritin is the expression of transferrin receptors (for iron acquisition) on immature oligodendrocytes. Transferrin protein accumulation and mRNA expression in the brain are both dependent on a viable population of oligodendrocytes and may have an autocrine function to assist oligodendrocytes in iron acquisition. Although apparently the majority of oligodendrocytes in white matter tracts contain ferritin, transferrin, and iron, not all of them do, indicating that there is a subset of oligodendrocytes in white matter tracts. The only known function of oligodendrocytes is myelin production, and both a direct and indirect relationship exists between iron acquisition and myelin production. Iron is directly involved in myelin production as a required co-factor for cholesterol and lipid biosynthesis and indirectly because of its requirement for oxidative metabolism (which occurs in oligodendrocytes at a higher rate than other brain cells). Factors (such as cytokines) and conditions such as iron deficiency may reduce iron acquisition by oligodendrocytes and the susceptibility of oligodendrocytes to oxidative injury may be a result of their iron-rich cytoplasm. Thus, the many known phenomena that decrease oligodendrocyte survival and/or myelin production may mediate their effect through a final common pathway that involves disruptions in iron availability or intracellular management of iron.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)83-93
Number of pages11
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1996

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neurology
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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