WASHINGTON — New research finds that copper in amounts readily found in our drinking water, the foods we eat and the vitamin supplements we take likely 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, a team of researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center suggested that too much of it may be a bad thing, and 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 entirely allowable levels, breaks down the barrier that keeps unwanted toxins from entering the brain, and that it fuels an increase in production of beta-amyloid but impedes the performance of proteins that clear the stuff from the brain.
On top of that, Deane’s team found that copper accumulation in the brain causes inflammation in brain tissues. At low levels and for short durations, that may be a good sign that brain tissues are responding to the danger of excess beta-amyloid proteins and are trying to expel them, Deane said. In time, however, neuro-inflammation can overwhelm the brain and begin to damage cells, he added.
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. While we take in copper from foods, it is most readily absorbed into the bloodstream in its “free” form, say researchers — when it is suspended in water.
The research, which lays out the case against a long-suspected culprit in Alzheimer’s disease, is published Monday in the journal PNAS.