A high resolution x-ray scanning technique can look inside a single brain tissue cell.
Iron sometimes collects in brain tissue
Scientists say it will help to pin down the role of iron and other metals in neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.
The new technique, developed by Keele University, can identify where the compounds are within the brain, and thus whether they are harmful.
Details are published in the journal Interface.
The researchers hope the scan will aid the development of new treatments and techniques for early diagnosis.
High concentrations of iron compounds in brain tissue have been linked to degenerative neurological diseases for more than 50 years.
Iron is an essential element for living organisms - but in some circumstances it can be toxic.
However, its precise role in the development of conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease is not known.
This is because the staining techniques used for identifying iron compounds to date cannot identify precisely where the iron is or what type of iron compound it is.
Researcher Professor Jon Dobson said: "This work will enable scientists to understand the properties of iron compounds and where they are in relation to structures in the tissue.
"Using this information, we are designing techniques that can identify them in the early stages for people at risk which will aid the development of suitable treatment.
"It also means that we may be able to develop treatments for those whose symptoms are already well-established."
Harriet Millward, of the Alzheimer's Research Trust, told the BBC news website the technique was potentially "very important".
"Misregulation of iron in the ageing brain is believed to be one of the early events that can lead to Alzheimer's, since excess iron can promote the production of the 'free radicals' which damage nerve cells in the disease.
"Learning more about the early stages of Alzheimer's will help us to develop new treatments to halt or prevent the disease."
However, she said more work was required before it was possible to gauge just how much potential the technique had.
Dr Susanne Sorensen, head of research at the Alzheimer's Society, said at present the technique had only been tested on animal tissue.
But she said: "There is still so much we don't know about the early stages of the development of Alzheimer's disease and understanding the role of metal ions may just help us on the way."
Robert Meadowcroft, of the Parkinson's Disease Society, said: "It must be stressed that the technique is in it early stages but is potentially a major step forward in identifying metals found in the brain that are linked to the onset of Parkinson's disease."