Scientists Link Copper Buildup to Alzheimer's Disease

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A recent study suggests that a buildup of copper from the average American diet could lead to the development of Alzheimer's disease.

Researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York state completed a study using cells from both mice and human beings, according to Medical News Today. Their results demonstrated that when copper builds up in the brain, it interferes with the body's ability to usher amyloid beta proteins from the organ before they create the plaques associated with Alzheimer's. The findings appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Copper has an important role in maintaining good health. When paired with iron, it helps create red blood cells. It also helps keep blood vessels, bones, nerves, and the immune system healthy. Humans typically ingest copper by drinking water from copper pipes and eating foods like nuts, some fruits and vegetables, shellfish, and red meat.

There is no cure for Alzheimer's. The goals of treatment include slowing the progression of the disorder, managing symptoms like confusion, adjusting the home environment to make daily activities easier, and providing support for family and other caregivers, PubMed Health says.

The Alzheimer's Association indicates that more than 5 million Americans have the disorder. It's the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S.

In a normal brain, a protein known as LRP1, which lines the blood vessels in the brain, binds with amyloid beta and ushers it from the organ. In their first experiment, the researchers gave mice trace levels of copper over three months. The copper collected in the cell walls of some of the small vessels that furnish the brain's blood supply. These cells are part of the blood/brain barrier, which controls what passes in and out of the brain.

Over time, oxidation occurred, causing the copper buildup to interfere with the capability of LRP1 to usher amyloid beta proteins from the brain. This occurred in both human and mouse cells.

In a second experiment, scientists looked at how the process affected mice bred to develop Alzheimer's. The cells started to leak, allowing copper in the blood to pass through the blood/brain barrier. This caused brain cells to boost the production of amyloid beta, then prodded it to clump and form the plaques associated with Alzheimer's.

When clumping starts, the body has lost its ability to eliminate amyloid beta. The researchers believe this is the point at which Alzheimer's develops.

In the last experiment, copper resulted in inflammation of brain tissue. This could speed the development of dementia. In all the experiments, the team used only trace amounts of copper.

The researchers don't advocate that Americans alter their diets. They caution that a link between copper buildup and Alzheimer's is probably due to long-term exposure and that scientists still need to determine the exact role of diet.

Vonda J. Sines has published thousands of print and online health and medical articles. She specializes in diseases and other conditions that affect the quality of life.

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