WASHINGTON — New research finds that copper — in amounts readily found in our drinking water, the foods we eat and the vitamin supplements we take — probably plays a key role in initiating and fueling the abnormal protein buildup and brain inflammation that are hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease.
While the mineral is important to healthy nerve conduction, hormone secretion and the growth of bones and connective tissue, researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center suggested that too much of it may be a bad thing. They set about to explore copper's dark side.
What they found, said neuroscientist Rashid Deane, is “pretty scary”: A steady diet of copper, even at allowable levels, breaks down the barrier that keeps unwanted toxins from entering the brain. And it fuels an increase in production of beta-amyloid but impedes the performance of proteins that clear it from the brain. Beta-amyloid is the main component of plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer's patients.
On top of that, Deane's team found that copper accumulation in the brain causes inflammation of brain tissue. At low levels and for short durations, that may be a good sign that brain tissue is responding to the danger of excess beta-amyloid proteins and is trying to expel them, Deane said.
In time, however, neuro-inflammation can overwhelm the brain and begin to damage cells, he said.
Copper is found in a wide range of the foods we eat, including red meat, shellfish, nuts and many fruits and vegetables, as well as in many vitamin supplements. It also leaches from copper pipes into the water we drink.
Deane said that, in the absence of effective treatments for Alzheimer's, his team's findings suggest a way to prevent the memory-robbing disorder or slow it.
One drug candidate now in trials — an agent that binds with copper molecules and escorts them out of the body — might do that, he said. But even now, he said, consumers could be checking their vitamin supplements for copper and researching whether their water filters are equipped to remove copper from their drinking supply.
“The key will be striking the right balance between too much and too little copper consumption,” Deane said. “Right now, we cannot say what the right level will be.”