Strict iron regulation is essential for normal brain function. The iron homeostasis, determined by the milieu of available iron compounds, is impaired in aging, neurodegenerative diseases and cancer. However, non-invasive assessment of different molecular iron environments implicating brain tissue’s iron homeostasis remains a challenge. We present a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology sensitive to the iron homeostasis of the living brain (the r1-r2* relaxivity). In vitro, our MRI approach reveals the distinct paramagnetic properties of ferritin, transferrin and ferrous iron ions. In the in vivo human brain, we validate our approach against ex vivo iron compounds quantification and gene expression. Our approach varies with the iron mobilization capacity across brain regions and in aging. It reveals brain tumors’ iron homeostasis, and enhances the distinction between tumor tissue and non-pathological tissue without contrast agents. Therefore, our approach may allow for non-invasive research and diagnosis of iron homeostasis in living human brains.
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