Two Surprising New Culprits in Alzheimer’s Development

English: Ancient copper pot on three iron feet...

Like a one-two punch, two separate and recent studies implicate the build-up of two essential metals commonly included in multivitamins, foods, and water in development of brain inflammation, amyloid plaque build-up, breakdown of the blood brain barrier, etc.. Which metals? Copper and iron.

Both copper and iron are essential for healthy cellular function, but recent studies suggest that as we age these minerals build up in and around the brain and eventually begin to cause problems. The study on iron comes from Dr. George Bartzokis, a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, and suggests that iron be added to the widely accepted, and notorious list of neuron strangelers: tau protein, and beta-amyloid protein. Like iron, these proteins contribute to healthy brain function throughout  life, but for reasons unknown to scientists, these proteins build-up in the brain, and go bad in older age. The results are amyloid plaques which break down and strangle neurons in the brain. UCLA researchers believe that iron accumulation also happens over time, and accelerates as certain high-iron tissues break down in the brain resulting in disruption to the normal function and killing of neurons.

While we cannot control iron released during neuron and related brain tissue deterioration, researchers do believe that limiting iron sources in our diets, and supplements are worth considering. Dr. Bartzokis suggests that people not take iron supplements unless directed by their doctor due to iron deficiencies.

The study on copper’s role in the development of Alzheimer’s Disease comes from Rashid Deane, Ph.D., a research professor in the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) Department of Neurosurgery, member of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine, and the lead author of the study appearing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  It is also important to point out that these findings were modeled in mice, and not humans.

Dr. Rashid’s findings suggest that copper accumulation can cause interference in the natural process which clears beta-amyloid protein from the brain. The mouse models also showed signs of a break down in the blood brain barrier due to a build-up of copper in important blood vessels designed to keep toxins out of the brain.

Alarmingly, the mouse and modeled human brain cells in the copper study were exposed to very low levels of copper, just 10% of the FDA’s legal limit for drinking water, and easily on par with normal exposure through natural food sources.  Some questions have risen about the study, earlier studies, and even Dr. Rashide suggest that copper deficiencies may be a cause of increasing beta-amyloid build up in the brain.

It would be impossible to avoid copper, and in an interview on NPR’s Science Friday (Aug. 23, 2013), Dr. Rashid does not suggest that people avoid copper or “become critical of their drinking water … or the copper pipes in their home,” rather, these curious findings need further research, better cellular models, and/or humans studies. He adds, “this is just a first step.”

Like iron, copper accumulation happens over time, and the right amount of copper is a balance that needs to be struck. Like iron, perhaps adding copper to our diets through supplements is not ideal until the element’s role in AD is further studied.

Below are just a few articles addressing the information above in more detail.

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