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Are Heavy Metals Evildoers in Alzheimer's Disease?

Could copper be a trigger in the development of Alzheimer's disease?

Does Alzheimer's confuse you? You're not alone. In fact, one of the great mysteries of modern science is the question of what actually causes Alzheimer's disease. For several years a group of Alzheimer's disease researchers have believed that metals such as iron and copper play a role. Now a new study supports that theory.

Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center found that copper may trigger the onset of Alzheimer's disease. Rashid Deane, Ph.D., lead author of the study, said that copper seems to prevent the brain from getting rid of a protein that forms the plaque that is the trigger of the disease.

"This impairment is one of the key factors that cause the protein to accumulate in the brain and form the plaques that are the hallmark of Alzheimer's disease," said Deane in a statement. The researchers, who published their work in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that copper can cause the protective blood-brain barrier to break down - at least in mice.

Fascinating. But what we all really want to know is, should we try to reduce  copper in our own diets? Copper is found in drinking water carried by copper pipes, nutritional supplements, red meats, nuts, shellfish, and even fruits and vegetables. It's an important mineral in bone growth, nerve function and tissue formation. We need small amounts of it to function well, but exposure to high levels can cause Alzheimer's-like symptoms. Will reducing the amount of copper we eat or drink reduce our chances of getting Alzheimer's disease?

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At a recent International Conference on Nutrition and the Brain, hosted by the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), several of the speakers focused on metals in the brain - specifically copper and iron - and their possible role in Alzheimer's disease.

Australian scientist Ashley Bush, M.D., director of the Oxidation Biology Laboratory at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne, Australia, was particularly interesting (possibly because of his cool Aussie accent).

His research focuses on understanding how metals are binding with proteins connected with Alzheimer's disease and whether using drugs to control copper and iron in the brain can help cure or prevent the disease. Bush and other researchers are currently testing one of those drugs on humans - in the fall we should know more about whether it works.

Based on the work of Bush and other scientists, the PCRM's Dietary Guidelines for Alzheimer's Prevention included the recommendation to "choose multivitamins without iron and copper and consume iron supplements only when directed by your physician." This is controversial because even if these metals are some of the villians in Alzheimer's, there's no strong evidence that reducing them in your diet will help prevent the disease. Some scientists say copper may even be protective to the brain. But Deane cautiously suggests that people might take a take a closer look at the copper in their diets.

"Copper is essential. But maybe, just maybe, if we are finding that copper is creating a problem in the brain, we should back off on supplements, look at labels on foods and know how much copper we are putting in our bodies. We don't need to overdo it," he told CNN.

Unfortunately, like so many aspects of this scientific mystery, the jury is still out on this one. But I did take a close look at my 25-year-old rusty cookie sheet last night and wonder what might be leaking into my kids' cookies and french fries. Might be time to invest in a new one.

Photo Credit:  FK1954 (Wikimedia Commons)

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