Assessment of tissue iron overload by nuclear magnetic resonance imaging.
PURPOSE: The ability of stored intracellular iron to enhance magnetic susceptibility forms the basis by which tissue iron can be detected by nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) imaging. We used this technique to assess myocardial, spleen, and liver iron content in patients with known or suspected iron overload disorders. PATIENTS AND METHODS: Spin echo NMR images were obtained in 30 patients; 20 had chronic anemias treated by multiple blood transfusions, five had idiopathic hemochromatosis, and five had non-hemochromatotic liver disease with elevated serum ferritin levels and no stainable iron on liver biopsy. The acquisition of oblique images through the short axis of the left ventricle permitted assessment of left ventricular function, while demonstrating the liver and spleen on the same image. Iron content was assessed using a signal intensity ratio of organ (spleen, liver, or myocardium) to skeletal muscle. RESULTS: In patients with multiple blood transfusions, iron content was highest in liver, followed by the spleen. Significant iron overload was detected in the myocardium of only one patient. Left ventricular systolic wall thickening was normal in patients receiving multiple blood transfusions. Two patients with treated idiopathic hemochromatosis had normal signal intensity ratios, and three untreated patients had evidence of significant deposits of iron in the liver and spleen as indicated by a reduction in signal intensity ratios (0.2 +/- 0.01 and 0.9 +/- 0.01, respectively). Five patients with non-hemochromatotic liver disease and high serum ferritin levels had normal signal intensity ratios by NMR imaging. CONCLUSION: NMR imaging is a useful method of detecting tissue iron and distinguishing disease due to iron overload. Myocardial iron deposition is a late event, occurring after accumulation of iron in the spleen and liver.