Copper May Play a Role in Alzheimer’s Disease

New research indicates that copper found in drinking water, foods and vitamin supplements may play a role in the buildup of proteins and inflammation of the brain that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Copper is necessary for bone and tissue growth, hormone secretion and nerve conduction, but the new research from the University of Rochester Medical Center suggests that too much copper has negative effects on human health. The research was published in the journal PNAS.

The research found that copper, even in amounts that are common and allowable by the FDA, can affect the barrier that keeps toxins from entering the brain. Copper can also fuel the production of beta-amyloid in the brain and keep proteins from clearing it out. Beta-amyloid is a component of amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

In addition, copper buildup in the brain can cause inflammation. In the short term, inflammation is a sign that brain tissues are responding to excess proteins and attempting to expel them, but in the long term inflammation can damage brain cells.

Copper is found in a wide range of foods, including shellfish, nuts, red meat, and many vegetables and fruits. It is also found in vitamin supplements, and it seeps into drinking water from copper pipes. Suspended in water, copper is in its free form and is more readily absorbed into the body than when it is consumed in food.

Researchers said that the findings could suggest a way to prevent or slow Alzheimer’s disease. A drug currently in trials binds with copper molecules and removes them from the body. However, researchers said that even if such a drug is successful, a balance will have to be found between too much copper in the body and too little.

The research was done with mice and with human brain cells to find ways that copper might initiate or worsen Alzheimer’s disease. They found that the blood-brain barrier breaks down in the elderly, allowing larger toxin molecules to enter the brain. They also found that the concentration of copper in the small blood vessels in the brain increases with age.

The researchers fed mice a normal diet but gave half of them double-distilled water with a very low copper content and half of them water with higher levels of copper, equal to one-tenth of the maximum allowed by the EPA. The mice with a higher copper intake had a level four times lower of a protein that removes beta-amyloid from the brain.

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