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The copper dilemma

Researchers are divided over the risks versus the benefits that copper has for our overall brain health.

The copper dilemma

This week US researchers released a study which found that too much copper in our diets might be contributing to a rise in cases of Alzheimer’s disease.

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research found high-levels of copper inhibited the brain’s ability to rid itself of a dementia-causing protein.

However, these results strongly contradict previous research, which alluded to copper’s role in safeguarding our brain health.

Copper is an important mineral to regulating vital processes in the body by activating a number of important proteins and enzymes.

It is required for bone strength, blood cell maturation, defence mechanisms and surprisingly, brain development. Too little traces of copper in the body can be fatal and too much is believed to cause illness.

We ingest dietary copper via tap water – which comes through copper pipes – as well as by consuming red meat, shellfish, fruit and vegetables.

“Copper is a very essential metal ion and you don’t want a deficiency and many nutritious foods also contain copper,” said the study’s lead researcher Dr Rashid Deane.

But he argued that his study showed that: “over time, copper’s cumulative effect is to impair the systems by which amyloid beta (the Alzheimer’s-related protein) is removed from the brain.”

The research team from the University of Rochester in New York conducted an experiment on mice, feeding them more copper in their water. They found the build up of the metal in the blood vessels of the brain interfered with the organ’s ability to shield and rid itself of the amyloid protein.

The formation of plaques of amyloid in the brain is one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.

In fact, Dr Deane also believes that copper is responsible for more of the amyloid beta protein being produced: “It’s a double whammy of increased production and decreased clearance of amyloid protein.”

But a UK professor told reporters there is still “no true consensus” on the role copper plays in the degenerative brain disease, sighting his own recent work which found evidence of lower brain copper related to ageing and Alzheimer’s as proof of that.

Alzheimer’s groups were quick to caution that further studies would be needed to understand the role copper plays in the brain and that, considering that copper is a vital mineral for the body, people should not persist to cut copper form their diet.

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