Antidote: Copper and Dementia

Marc Siegel, MD
Marc Siegel, MD

Alzheimer's Disease is on the rise, and is expected to increase by a factor of four over the next fifty years. Practically everyone has a friend or a family member who suffers from this debilitating disease. Research into the causes and potential treatments are crucial. Recent research has confirmed the importance of beta amyloid protein in clogging the brain and leading to a loss in memory and executive function that characterizes the disease. Attention has rightly turned to ways to prevent this deleterious protein from forming. The news media has become obsessed with Alzheimer's Disease, and rightly so, as it has an enormous financial, emotional, and logistical impact on our health care system. But the potential cures and treatments are often overly hyped, and no real cure has emerged.

A new study from Rochester on the effects of copper on this protein, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, has come in just below the media radar, despite its obvious importance. Copper is everywhere in our diet, from the water we drink (due to the copper in our pipes), to the meat and shellfish we eat, to many of the nutritional supplements we take. Copper is important to nerve conduction, bone growth, hormonal function and connective tissue growth.

But in the new study in mice it was determined that copper interferes with a protein in the brain that helps get rid of the beta amyloid protein while also causing more beta amyloid to form and cause clumping. Though there are no immediate implications in terms of dietary change, there may well be long term problems for copper.

The media has spent so much time obsessing on the harmful effects of mercury and lead, its good to see a shift in focus to copper, even though it is clearly a crucial metal for human health. But too much of it may be a bad thing when it comes to the brain. This study is not proof that too much copper leads to Alzheimer's Disease, but it is certainly a call for further research and more in the way of media attention.